As parents protest critical race theory, students fight racist behavior at school
Heated local debates over critical race theory are feeding into the bullying and harassment of students of color at school, making it harder to stop, parents and experts say.
During the first week of October, Brooklyn Edwards was in the school gymnasium during her lunch period when she said a classmate took a piece of cotton out of his pocket, tossed it on the ground and told her to pick it.
Brooklyn, 15, described the incident a month later at the Johnston County, North Carolina, school board meeting. She said she’d dealt with racist bullying frequently as a Black student at Princeton Middle/High School, in a majority-white small town southeast of Raleigh. Classmates called her racial slurs, she said, including in front of teachers who failed to react. One classmate suggested she kill herself, so she might be reborn as a white girl, Brooklyn said.
“It’s bad enough we have to deal with racism in the real world. We shouldn’t have to deal with it in school,” she told the school board, pleading with them to investigate racial harassment in the district. “I’m speaking up for the ones that are too scared to speak up for themselves.”
After Brooklyn spoke at the board meeting, she said she continued to receive social media messages from classmates calling her racial slurs. Her mother transferred her to a different school in October.
“I shouldn’t have to relocate my children because they refuse to fix this problem,” Moses said. “It’s all about politics, and our children are having to pay for it.”
Moses said she met with the superintendent this month, after weeks of requesting to speak to him, and he said he would look into the harassment. The superintendent declined an interview request. The school district said in a statement that administrators began investigating Brooklyn’s claims in early October but did not share the outcome of that investigation. The statement said no other student has reported current incidents of racism at Princeton Middle/High School.
“Our school board members and school administration will not tolerate racist bullying and harassment of our students,” said Caitlin Furr, a district spokeswoman. “We will continue to investigate reports that are brought to us and to take other steps to make sure our students have a positive school experience.”
This fall, teens in more than a dozen states have staged protests and spoken before school boards about racist bullying and harassment from their peers — sounding alarms over discrimination in some of the same districts and states targeted by conservative activists calling for a ban on anti-racism lessons.
Students have walked out of class over racist remarks by classmates in Connecticut and Massachusetts, racist social media posts by teens in Minnesota and Washington, graffiti with racial slurs found in bathrooms at schools in Michigan and Missouri, and threats against students of color in New York and Ohio.
David Hinojosa, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who spearheads the nonprofit organization’s work on equal educational opportunities, is concerned that the battles are imperiling efforts to achieve racial and gender equity in schools. He cited the widespread actions opposing diversity efforts “that have proliferated across the country,” beginning with former President Donald Trump’s anti-CRT executive order last year and continuing through state efforts to ban books and limit how history is taught.
“When we say it’s not OK to talk about this truthful history,” he said, “there’s going to be a bleedover effect into the behaviors of school teachers, the behaviors of school leaders and the behavior of students.”
The wave of student activism in recent months, he and two other civil rights experts said, shows precisely why schools cannot afford to avoid the topics of race and discrimination.
“What the students are shining a light on is the necessity and urgency of talking honestly about race and reckoning honestly with racism,” said Matthew Delmont, a Dartmouth College history professor who’s studied the civil rights movement. “These student protests are making it painfully clear these are issues schools need to fully address as part of the curriculum.”
In Pennsylvania, students staged multiple demonstrations this fall against a ban imposed by the Central York school board on an anti-racist reading list that a group of students, parents and educators had created last fall as an optional resource for anyone looking to learn more about discrimination.
Students marched, wrote newspaper op-eds and used a petition and an Instagram campaign, successfully pressuring the school board into voting unanimously to reverse the ban. But to student organizers like Edha Gupta, a senior at Central York High School, damage had already been done.
“It is evident to me that diversity and the voices of color in this district do not matter,” Gupta, 17, said at a September board meeting. “I don’t feel welcome here — not anymore.”
Students protesting against racial harassment have been met with mixed responses from administrators. In Tigard, Oregon, a superintendent joined a walkout, while in Rome, Georgia, where state education officials passed a resolution this year calling for limits on what is taught in schools about racial issues or current events, students were suspended for leading a walkout in response to classmates waving a Confederate flag.
Hinojosa worries about the impact on students if they aren’t supported in their fight for an educational experience that’s free of harassment and discrimination.
“We’re putting all of that at risk because CRT has been used as a dog whistle to mean so many different things,” he said.
‘Racism thrives in our hallway’
In Iowa, one of eight states that enacted laws to ban critical race theory or limit how educators can talk about race, a top Republican lawmaker said Nov. 18 that he will propose legislation to ensure school staff members face criminal prosecution if they share books like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, which he considers obscene.
That same week, the Black Student Union at West High School in Iowa City organized multiple protests and spoke at school board meetings after social media posts circulated showing white classmates using a racial slur, wearing blackface and threatening to stab Black students in the eyes, according to students and Little Village magazine.