EVERETT — Students are demanding equity, racial justice and representation in their schools.
Members of the Everett High School Black Student Union stated their demands June 6 during an Everett protest after a now-fired police officer was charged with killing George Floyd May 25 in Minneapolis.
They want more counselors and teachers of color, a mandatory Black history class, ethnic studies classes, and updated English and history courses that include works by Black, indigenous and people of color, among other changes.
“After all of this George Floyd chaos coming up, it made it seem like we needed more education about this,” said 17-year-old Fatoumata Darboe, who will begin her senior year in September.
Their demands have reached the Everett School Board and superintendent, and have found receptive ears and minds on most, but not all, of the items.
Superintendent Ian Saltzman wrote a statement June 2 denouncing racism and oppression, and committing the district to anti-racism professional development for all staff while reviewing policies and procedures.
Saltzman also pledged that, unlike a dusty tome, the work of actively undoing racism won’t be shelved.
“We acknowledge that we have a great deal of work to do,” he said in an interview with The Daily Herald. “We have to make changes, and we have to admit this.”
Saltzman heard the students’ concerns about racism at the school and beyond a few days before the protest, but the specific list wasn’t issued until later, he said.
Then he met with principals to discuss the issues he perceived to be behind the demands.
On June 9, the school board issued a resolution stating that it mourned Floyd’s death, supports Black students, staff and families, affirms the right to protest, and commits to “actionable ways” to make the school district just for all.
When the district begins crafting its strategic plan this fall, racial equity will be a major element, Saltzman said. That means reviewing the equity policy and procedures, including curriculum, hiring, recruitment and instruction.
“My cabinet, myself, my staff, my principals, my teachers, we have to work on it so that it’s systematic,” he said. “It has to be forever.”
Who’s in class?
Everett, a city with more than 111,000 people, is supermajority white at over 73%. U.S. Census estimates from last year show 4.7% of the city’s residents are Black or African American, with larger minority Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or multiracial populations. The school district covers other areas, including Mill Creek.
The Everett School District employs 1,361 teachers, of which 138, about 10 percent, identify as being people of color, according to figures provided by the district.
State data from the 2018-19 school year shows 89% of classroom teachers were white, and 1.2% were Black/African American.
Of the district’s 79 administrators, 25 self reported being people of color, district spokesperson Kathy Reeves said.
There are 21,250 students in Everett’s public schools, per data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Most students, about 49%, are white. Another 20% are Hispanic or Latino, and 16% are Asian.
Only 4.3% are Black.
The Everett High School Black Student Union has about 15 active members, including Hanna Bekele, Yeshiah Hadley and Darboe.
They each said they have only had one Black teacher in all of their schooling.
School Board Director April Berg said she wasn’t surprised by the students’ demands.
“As a Black mother and a Black family in this district, I can say I’ve been aware of these issues personally since the day we stepped foot in the Everett School District,” she said.
Bekele, 16, is one of the students who publicly demanded the changes. She was motivated to act by Floyd’s death, hearing racial slurs at school, and a lack of representation throughout the school, she said.
A poignant issue for her and the Black Student Union was diversity in the school’s leadership classes and Honor Society.
“I was one of three Black students in the class,” Bekele said. “I didn’t really feel like it was a space for people that look like me.”
She’s not enrolled in the class next year, when she’ll be a senior.
Honor Society is an extracurricular program for students who meet certain grade thresholds and commit to volunteer hours.
“I’m pretty sure I was the only person of color in that society,” Hadley said.
What’s being taught?
Hadley, 15, said he was uncomfortable when his class read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” considered a literary classic about racism and the legal system in America’s Deep South in the 1930s. The book’s dialogue includes racism and violence directed at Black people.
Hadley said there wasn’t any discussion about the racist words.
Bekele said she heard a teacher read passages from books that used the “n-word” or described African people as “savages” without prefacing the context or reasons the author used the word.
“There’s a lot of room for misconception and misunderstanding that the teachers aren’t aware of,” she said.
In 2018, Duluth Public Schools in Minnesota removed it and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from their English curriculum. A high school English teacher who taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” for years said the book published in 1960 “reads like it was written to explain racism to primarily a white audience,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “My African-American population doesn’t need to have racism explained to them.”
The Everett Black Student Union didn’t specify that any instructional materials be removed. Instead, the students want more exposure to more writing by Black, indigenous and people of color in English and literature classes to expand the dialogue around narratives and perspectives. As an example, they could only name a handful of excerpts or books by Black authors — Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston — that were assigned reading.
“By teaching whitewashed history, you’re not addressing the racism that Black and brown people face,” Darboe said.
Adding those perspectives makes sense to district leadership. The best way to do so will be up for discussion and collaboration, as it has been when the district adopts new curriculum. Teachers in a subject gather from across the district to review any knowledge gaps, evaluate available textbooks, narrow the options down to a handful, and gather input from community members (though it isn’t technically a public meeting, like the school board sessions).
But creating separate ethnic studies classes that are elective courses, instead of folding them into the existing history or English requirements to graduate, could leave a loophole where some students don’t learn those lessons.
“When you have a system in which a person can opt out of it, you have a system that isn’t equitable,” School Board Vice President Pam LeSesne said.
Saltzman, the superintendent, said the district will seek guidance from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and other districts for implementing ethnic studies courses.
“We are going to address everything this coming school year,” he said. “We will put things into practice. Some things that we can’t do or we’re struggling with, we’ll figure out how we’ll do that.”
Whose lives matter?
The Black Student Union demanded school resource officers and “Blue Lives Matter” stickers be removed.
Bekele, Darboe and Hadley said they thought that Everett High School’s open campus and the fear of school shootings were reasons officers were in schools. But they worried about the disproportionate discipline administered through the program as a whole, even if not specifically in Everett’s schools, and would rather see the money used for counselors.
“I’ll be honest, they are stretched thin, and we know that,” Board President Caroline Mason said of the district’s counselors. “We need more counselors in our schools.”
Generally, the cost for officers is split with the schools’ law enforcement jurisdiction, including the Everett Police Department and Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. The Everett School District is set to spend $430,000 on officers this school year. The district budget for counselors is $9.86 million.
“It would be better off if we had more school counselors to help with mental health, especially different counselors of color,” Hadley said.
It’s unclear if police in schools improve safety, NPR reported in 2018.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state published policy reforms in 2017 for school policing. The first recommendation was to invest education funding in student support services, not police. It also called for legislative amendments to prevent students from being arrested and prosecuted for classroom misbehavior, or to limit the statute to outsiders, not students.
In a statement, the Everett Police Department said its Youth Services Unit, which includes the school officers, promote safety and provide a “positive resource” in Everett and Mukilteo schools.
“Our officers help provide a safe learning environment, provide valuable resources to school staff members, and develop strategies to resolve problems affecting youth,” the statement said. “The Youth Services Unit is a valuable and integral part of the department designed to develop positive relationships with Everett’s diverse young people.”
LeSesne, the school district’s first Black board member and its vice president, said she supported the students and their demands for equity and racial justice. She remembered similar issues in education when she was in high school a decade after the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
“Since 1865, we have constantly had a problem believing that Black lives matter, not standing up for justice for African-American students,” she said.
Mason, LeSesne and Saltzman weren’t ready to remove officers from schools. They supported the program as a benefit because of the healthy relationships built between the officers, students and families. Berg said it was a conversation the board should have.
The presence of “Blue Lives Matter” stickers, used in reference to law enforcement, was news to them. Bekele said she saw some around campus, including on staff office doors and windows, which upset her because she sees them as a retaliation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It doesn’t really make me feel safe as a student,” she said.
Saltzman said he asked staff to report to him about the stickers. None were found, but the principal found badges with a blue line across them on campus, which were removed, spokesperson Reeves said.
The Black Student Union members said they know these things can’t be accomplished overnight. Anti-racism work isn’t like memorizing a new vocabulary word in English or the Pythagorean theorem in algebra.
“We understand it will take time,” Bekele said.
They want district leaders to organize responses into short-term and long-term goals, which can be published, and to be held accountable for achieving, similar to graduation rates or test scores.
Until then, they sought support from people in the district to contact the superintendent and board in support of the student demands. The Everett students also spoke with about 65 students from other districts in the county to share their demands.
But all paths need a first step, and the time to take one toward equal opportunity and treatment couldn’t wait.
“I have a brother who will be a freshman next year,” Bekele said. “Even if I don’t get to experience some of the changes, at least my brother will.”
Ben Watanabe: email@example.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.