Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
I wish I could say I was surprised when a teacher told my leadership class about a serious racist incident that occurred in my school, Bellevue’s Newport High.
It was the week after my school’s Martin Luther King Jr. assembly, where I performed as a spoken-word artist.
What I didn’t see: Over the weekend, at a home basketball game, Newport students spoke racial and homophobic slurs against members of the opposing team, many of whom were Black. A group of students from my school, the teacher said, chased their opponent’s bus, throwing bottles at them while shouting racial slurs.
My school’s athletic director emailed us, saying that students who use “profanity, slurs, racial, homophobic or offensive language” would be banned from “the game and/or events” that school year. The email explained that the incidents I learned about led to these rules. As he put it, “a mob of Newport students mocked and harassed the Bothell High School team bench … and blocked the exits.”
A few hours later, an email from my principal followed: It denounced the “handful of incidents” that “caused harm to targeted individuals” and asked “that such language is never used.” If it’s witnessed, people should report it.
This school culture has been brewing for years under Newport’s mask of academic excellence. Many of us feel furious, alone and tired. I’m sharing this story now because accountability and ensuring an inclusive school culture are essential — that’s especially true amid the Black Lives Matter protests and a pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color.
As the anniversary of said events approaches, little has changed. There have been times where individuals in Microsoft Teams classrooms utter those same discriminatory remarks. Those same perpetrators now rely on social media and online-learning tools such as OneNote as a means of expression. And conversations addressing this school culture have been put on the back burner. Accountability has been lost.
The administrators’ January emails referenced a zero-tolerance policy toward racist language. They echoed that language in a Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying (HIB) prevention video they had us watch this school year. If that’s really the case, how has this behavior continued?
There needs to be more accountability so that administrators follow through on every incident, beyond tepid schoolwide emails. Students should never have to sense a target on their back because of their race. And it can’t be solely up to students to fix this problem.
After learning about the incident, I attended Black Student Union meetings, where attempting to find a solution became our priority. This was when it hit us: We were doing the work of our administration. As far as I know, school officials never followed up about the basketball incident since those emails. This incident has become just one of many in which the burden of addressing racism at my school is put on students of color.
A lack of Black representation at Newport might be contributing to the problem. In the 2019-2020 school year, the student body was 30% white, 51% Asian, 7% Hispanic, 8% two or more races, <1% American Indian or Alaska Native, <1% Pacific Islander, and only 1% Black. The demographics of Bellevue School District’s educators are even more stark; in the 2019-2020 school year, there were approximately 79% White, 12% Asian Pacific Islander, <1% Native American, 6% Hispanic Latino, and 2% Black certified teachers.
That mismatch makes the collective consciousness of tolerating, experiencing, and perpetrating discriminatory behavior widespread. And if you don’t believe me, I recommend reading through the 160-plus documented experiences of Bellevue students on the @blacknqueeratbsd Instagram account.
Growing up in the Bellevue School District since elementary school, I’ve experienced numerous instances of racism — whether through microaggressions or clear racial bias in class.
The bus incident felt different. It illustrated how racism is often swept under the rug in my district. I needed to push even harder for action and accountability. I happened to have an interview scheduled with Newport’s administration to discuss the importance of students knowing their rights in school, so I took this opportunity to ask why this pattern of racism continued.
When I met with the administration, they said they were willing to emphasize incorporating students’ rights in schools into the curriculum. I questioned the system through which students report racism, emphasizing how even after incidents are reported, they seem to persist. “What else are we supposed to do?!?” an administrator interrogated.
As a student, I am here to learn. Why ask me to craft solutions? I then attempted to articulate the pain and frustration that many BSU members and students of color face because of the lack of action following the numerous racially motivated incidents.
The conversation ended with my face stained with tears. I felt defeated, small, overwhelmed with frustration. A Black girl in a room of authority figures invalidating how I and many others felt about how said events were handled. I left that office, not only late to first period, but emotionally traumatized and drained. When writing this piece, I asked more questions but couldn’t get direct answers.
It starts at the top. We’re tired, both students and educators. It’s emotionally exhausting, especially for students of color who already have to face similar problems outside school. We have the right to feel safe and supported; but cannot without full transparency and the reassurance that administrators are handling things effectively. The district should reexamine its policies surrounding the reporting and handling of discriminatory incidents, especially because these incidents persist.
Until this situation and culture has been effectively addressed throughout the Bellevue School District, the solution must start with action and humility. This means we must first take the time to do more than acknowledge my tears. No longer can we afford our wheels to spin in this fight for progress. I urge both students and educators to begin to shift their priorities to establish not just safe spaces, but brave spaces. To start more than just a courageous conversation, but an action plan and an established precedent of accountability.
So far, we’ve only scratched the surface.