It came as no surprise to Malaika Saleem when, a year ago, the front page of her school’s newspaper featured a racist illustration.
It depicted a Black man in casual garb exchanging money for a package labeled “cure” with a white man in a business suit. The headline read, “The Struggles of A Life with Addiction,” prompting criticism of the illustration for relying on stereotypes that associate Black people with drug use.
While disappointing, “things like that are to be expected,” said Saleem, now a senior and student body president at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School.
At Roosevelt, located in a largely white neighborhood, 3.6% of 1,800 students are Black. Some have been called the n-word, parents, teachers and students say. Slurs have been found in bathroom stalls, and a few years ago, student government leaders briefly tried to rebrand Black History Month as Kindness Month.
After the newspaper illustration spread on social media, the school became one of several in the Puget Sound region where racist, bigoted images or speech by students garnered media attention in the last year. What happened next, experts said, followed a familiar sequence: Public outcry. School apology. A promise for change.
What happens after the spotlight fades?
After the public heat died down, Roosevelt staff went through racial equity training. The school purchased and displayed thousands of dollars’ worth of multilingual welcome banners and Black Lives Matter signs. But those efforts, Saleem said, haven’t changed what many of her fellow Black students call a chilly and unwelcoming environment.
Images on social media caught fire in other places, too. At Mercer Island High School last March, two students posed for a photograph displaying a Nazi salute. In April, a racist prom invitation at Issaquah High School prompted a student walkout. A few weeks ago, also in Issaquah, a video circulated showing a white Liberty High School student using a slur and advocating for Black people to be hanged.
The Seattle Times checked in on how schools responded in the months following their controversies, and spoke to more than 30 students, parents, educators and civil rights advocates about these events, and about their ideas on how schools should intervene when students exhibit racial bias and ignorance.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimates that less than 5% of hate incidents in schools make the news. More than two-thirds of 3,000 educators SPLC surveyed in 2018 reported hate incidents in their schools. In more than half of those cases, principals didn’t acknowledge them, teachers said. The FBI reported a 33% increase in school and college-based hate crimes between 2013 to 2018.
The stress caused by racism affects not only the well-being of the children targeted. Research suggests it can harm bystanders too: A study cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that when asked to recall a time they witnessed racism or other forms of repeated abuse, youth experienced “profound physiological and psychological effects,” comparable to those felt by a first responder in the aftermath of a disaster.
Public exposure can pressure schools to confront racism that has been festering for years. But it takes continuous training to create a respectful culture, said Maureen Costello, former executive director of Teaching Tolerance, a SPLC education program.
“They should treat this like a public health issue,” Costello said. “Often, they’ll issue a strong statement, and then, full stop. It’s never mentioned again.”
At Roosevelt, administrators focused on training teachers and members of the student newspaper staff. Mercer Island High School signed up for a yearlong partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). And in Issaquah, the schools are updating student conduct requirements and using outside experts to start conversations.
“It starts at the top”
To address racism, a school needs to first acknowledge it, said Rita Green, education chair for Washington state NAACP.
“It starts at the top,” she said.
The next step, she said, is training educators and students. At Mercer Island High School, the ADL partnership provided that opportunity.
After she saw the photo of students displaying a Nazi salute, Mercer Island High School principal Vicki Puckett called in help from the organization and met with parents and community members, who were incensed.
It was disappointing for her, too, she said. Anti-Semitism and racism weren’t new for the school, located in an area with a sizable Jewish population and growing number of Asian and multiracial students. But Puckett said she’d spent several years pushing her school to openly discuss racism and bias — sometimes facing pushback from the community, which she said is still mostly white and middle to upper class.
“When I first got here eight years ago, some people thought I was working on the kitchen staff,” said Puckett, who is Asian and was born in South Korea.
Over a year, the school participated in the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” initiative, which requires students to undergo training on how to interrupt racism and bias, and teach what they’ve learned to their peers.
Many initiatives just “ask students to be nice,” said Scottie Nash, who heads school-based work for the ADL in Washington. “We want them to move past that and act on it.”
The ADL doesn’t yet have a definitive way to assess its free program.
But Puckett said she’s seen small signs that students have become more comfortable pointing out and discussing bias. At a recent school dance, one student told her it was unfair to nonbinary people to separate attendees by gender as security searched their belongings.
Puckett said the students in the salute photograph thought the image would be funny, but they seemed remorseful. She decided against formally disciplining them given the heat they’d already faced — which included death threats. They publicly apologized, visiting the homes of community members and a local rabbi.
When racist incidents happen off campus, it’s still important for schools to respond, said Costello, who directed Teaching Tolerance until her December retirement.
“Schools aren’t isolated from communities. They’re reflections,” she said. “They need to recognize what is happening is an injury to students.”
Families and educators in the Issaquah School District had to contend with two such incidents in the past year.
Last April, two Issaquah High School students were photographed next to a school-dance proposal that read, “If I was black, I’d be picking cotton. But instead, I pick you.” When the image spread, students staged a walkout.
Just a short drive from downtown Issaquah, the school’s demographics are similar to Roosevelt’s: Black students make up just 2.2% of nearly 2,500 students, and the community is mostly wealthy and white.
While racist behavior can arise even in the most diverse of schools, it can be harder to start conversations when there are few students of color, said Costello. Some teachers didn’t even want to discuss the dance-proposal incident, said Issaquah student Alyssia Pimpleton.
L. Michelle, an Issaquah School District spokeswoman, acknowledged that some employees “are uncomfortable talking about or addressing racist behavior. After all, this is not a topic covered when teachers are earning their teaching degrees.”
Jordan Frost, one of two Black teachers at the school, said he feels the administration is committed to making the staff more conscious of racial bias, but added that not everyone on staff has applied what they’ve learned to their own classrooms.
Michelle said the district partnered with a Renton organization called Cultures Connecting to provide diversity training for staff and students and to hold an event called “How to be a Culturally Competent Family.” She said the district also invested in “lessons on microaggressions and privilege” and added language to its student handbooks to encourage the reporting of behavior that interferes with “an equitable and inclusive learning environment.”
In the immediate aftermath of the prom invitation, Issaquah High principal Andrea McCormick said she had a meeting with her staff and sent teachers and parents articles about discussing racism with kids. The administration also reminded students about ways they could anonymously report such incidents.
There have also been ongoing efforts to address racist behavior at the school, she said, not all of them prompted by the administration. Students of color created a video addressing how school discipline disproportionately affected them. School staff discussed it. A student club that meets weekly discusses racist incidents in the community.
Adults “should be asking [students] what they’re comfortable with, and what supports they need,” said Nash, of ADL. “There’s a tendency to pressure people who have been targeted to come up with the answers.”
Eight months later and eight miles away, a video of a Liberty High School student calling for Black people to be hanged circulated on Snapchat, prompting principal Sean Martin, who declined to comment for this story, to notify parents. His December email said the video contained “racist content that is not consistent” with the school’s values, and asked parents not to pass the video around.
Martin then went to every English class to discuss the incident and expectations for conduct, said Michelle. The school, which is 2% Black, plans to have diversity experts address students and staff. Students were also required participate in Cultures Connecting training.
A Black student there, who requested anonymity because he was concerned he might be targeted, said he has a class with the student — a cheerleader — who made the video. It makes him want to leave out of frustration.
“I don’t want her to cheer for me,” he said, “or any other Black student.”
The district declined to comment on how the students involved were disciplined, citing privacy laws.
Ways to be proactive
Beyond reacting to a particular incident, schools can be proactive by investing in Black and ethnic studies, NAACP’s Green said.
“We’ve created this society that says Black is bad,” said Green. “If they see ethnic studies, they see that all races contribute positively to society.” Though several Seattle educators teach ethnic studies — lessons that focus on the perspectives and experiences of people of color — it is not a districtwide requirement.
These lessons, said Saleem, the Roosevelt student, would be especially valuable for her school, where she says the curriculum reinforces students’ largely white, upper-middle-class worldview.
“It’s something that needs to begin when we’re really young,” she said.
Roosevelt principal Kristina Rodgers declined an interview through a district spokesman and didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. Once she learned of The Times story, she sent an email to parents detailing steps the school has taken toward its goal of anti-racism, including the incorporation of ethnic studies into humanities classes.
“At Roosevelt … students who look like me have benefited from systemic white privilege,” Rodgers wrote. She also mentioned a new system for students to report concerns to the administration.
After the edition of The Roosevelt News with the offensive illustration was published, staff went through six hours of race and equity training. Students at the paper say they got lessons on implicit bias and worked with clubs like the Black Student Union to improve their coverage. Now, each staffer reviews the paper before it goes to press.
The father of the student who drew the illustration, Wes Kim, said his son wasn’t disciplined, but added that he understood the impact immediately. Kim said he had taught his son about racism — but those discussions mostly centered on his experience as a Korean American, not anti-Blackness. It’s on the school system, he said, “but it’s on us, too.”
After Saleem finished her Advanced Placement U.S. History class last school year, she began periodically cutting out sections of the textbook that focused on people of color.
By last week, nearly 300 pages into the text, she was able to fit everything she had snipped onto seven pages of a notebook.
Most of it was about slavery.