Bellevue educators and staff members hope to start a districtwide conversation about how to address racism and issues affecting students of color.
Next week, a group of Bellevue teachers and other staff members plan to wear Black Lives Matter shirts for a “Day of Action” to show support for marginalized students in the school district.
The Tuesday event follows one in Seattle in October, when 2,000 teachers wore shirts and buttons to call for more intense focus on racial equity within the district. But in Bellevue, where black students make up less than 3 percent of the population, the educators hope the day starts a larger, districtwide conversation about how to address racism and issues affecting students of color.
“I think the main goal for this day is primarily to let our students of color know that there are people who are fighting for them, who understand the issues they are facing and take it seriously,” said Bellevue High School teacher Terry Jess.
About 300 people have purchased the shirts, with “Black Lives Matter” printed on the front, and on the back, “I stand for and with all of my students who are targeted due to their race, gender, orientation, immigration status, religion and/or ability.”
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Organizers also have distributed 600 buttons, Jess said.
The organizers, part of a group called “Educators for Justice,” emphasized they are planning the event as private citizens. The day is not sponsored by the Bellevue School District.
Bellevue “recognizes and supports our staff’s rights to freedom of speech and interest in social justice issues,” the district said in a prepared statement. “Similar to other districts, they can exercise their rights as long as it does not impact the school day and the ability to provide a safe and civil learning environment for all students.”
The Bellevue Education Association supports its members participating in the Day of Action “however they choose,” said President Andy Rubesch.
The district’s teachers union adopted a resolution in October supporting Seattle Education Association members, and did the same for Bellevue members. The resolution also supports members wearing the shirts or other attire on following Mondays “indicating solidarity with the cause of ending racial inequities.”
The district does have an equity department, whose initiatives include separate one-day programs for female and male students who identify as black, Latino or Native American to learn about race, culture, leadership and self-empowerment. A class called “Race in the United States” is now offered at three high schools.
But the purpose of the Day of Action is to have a broader conversation throughout the district and show all students they are supported, Jess said. Organizers said they were inspired by Seattle educators who wore Black Lives Matter shirts. The Seattle educators also wanted to support John Muir Elementary, which had its “Black Men Uniting to Charge the Narrative” day canceled after receiving a threat over teachers’ plans to wear the shirts.
Bellevue bus driver Kevin Reniche said he was thrilled when he saw how Seattle had taken the movement districtwide.
“I knew that it could, and should, happen in Bellevue as well,” he said.
In Seattle, several schools held rallies before classes started, where teachers, students and parents spoke about the importance of racial equity.
Bellevue schools won’t be holding rallies, but the organizers do encourage teachers to have conversations about race in their classrooms, said Bellevue High School teacher Hannah Yale.
There are significant differences between the two districts. Seattle has more than twice the number of students and 15 times more black students than Bellevue. In Seattle, 36 percent of the students are eligible for the free- or reduced-lunch program, compared with 18 percent of Bellevue’s students.
But both Seattle and Bellevue are majority-minority districts, with white students making up about 47 percent of Seattle’s school population and 40 percent of Bellevue’s. (At 36 percent, Asian students make up the second-biggest group in Bellevue.)
“This demonstration is not just for our students of color, but is important for our white students as well,” Yale said.
After Seattle’s day, district officials and school-board members received a deluge of critical messages, though members noted many were from outside the Seattle area.
“There have been questions of ‘why do we need this in Bellevue?’ ” Yale said. “But that’s another way they (marginalized groups) are ignored, just because their numbers are small.”
With “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the shirts, some people may perceive it as a political stance, Jess said, but it should be seen as social justice. At one time, he noted, school integration was considered a political stance.
“We have to acknowledge that something needs to be done and draw attention to that,” he said. “There are more conversations that need to be had.”