Students, teachers and supporters are demanding that school districts make houses of education safer and more supportive of Black students in the face of a backlash against anti-racist education playing out in state and local governments.
At the start of Black History Month, thousands of people touching local school districts will participate in the annual Black Lives Matter at School week of action, organizers said in a press conference on Jan. 24. The week involves events including a youth leadership forum, a discussion about the state of ethnic studies in schools and a Young, Gifted and Black talent show.
It’s topped off with a statewide school walkout, building upon calls by students in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) for better safety and continued education in the face of continued coronavirus infections among students, staff and faculty.
Organizers have four central demands: end zero-tolerance discipline and implement restorative justice; hire more Black teachers; mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 education; and fund more counselors in schools rather than police officers.
The point is to make education equitable, truthful and safe for all students.
“The system was not meant to help us; the system was meant to put us in a cage and make us think a certain way that doesn’t represent our brilliance,” said Rena Mateja, a student at Cleveland High School.
Black Lives Matter at Schools began in 2016 after someone called in a bomb threat to John Muir Middle School over teachers announcing they would wear BLM t-shirts to school, said Jesse Hagopian, an activist and high school teacher.
The district fully supports “Black Lives Matter and many public-facing expressions of support for BLM,” said spokesperson Tim Robinson in an email.
“We applaud public focus on furthering the cause of equity throughout the district, the community and beyond, and we appreciate the partnership and support from so many as we continue pursuing the initiatives that we employ as we work to dramatically improve academic and life outcomes for students of color,” Robinson wrote, attaching links to planning efforts, strategies and hiring results showing that 32.3 percent of new teachers hired in the 2021-22 school year were teachers of color.
The movement has had successes, speakers at the press conference said.
SPS ended the practice of placing police officers in schools “indefinitely” in June 2020 as protests around the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, were at their apex. Aki Kurose Middle School secured a new counselor. School lessons changed to include a broader acknowledgement of the contributions of non-white cultures to math and “stopped sugarcoating a lot of stuff” in history lessons, according to students.
But there is a lot of work left to be done, proponents say.
According to a Seattle Times analysis from 2018, 89 percent of teachers in Washington state are white. Students say that they want more Black teachers, and they want those teachers to have subsidized housing near the schools in which they teach.
“Me, as a Black student, has never been taught by a Black teacher, and this isn’t a special phenomenon in my life or my school,” said Alexis Mburu, a member of the Washington State NAACP Youth Council.
The fight for comprehensive ethnic studies courses continues, as does the need for counselors to help students, speakers said.
As the Black Lives Matter in Schools movement continues to make gains, so do those that are working against its goals.
Elected officials are using the short legislative session to debate a bill that would mandate particular civics lessons and prohibit mandated trainings that involve nine factors including “the United States is fundamentally or ‘structurally’ racist or sexist,’” according to the bill analysis.
“This is a crucial time to be discussing and be building the Black Lives Matter at School movement because we know that the state legislature just introduced House Bill 1807,” Hagopian said, referencing the bill, which was scheduled for public comment on Jan. 25.
Similar legislation is popping up all over the country in the name of combatting a conception of “critical race theory,” an academic framework created for graduate-level study that isn’t taught in grade school. The term has become seen as a catchall phrase for educational content or values that run contrary to those usually espoused by white-dominated culture. As of November 2021, nine states had passed laws banning critical race theory, although only two named it, according to the Brookings Institute.
“The satire of the situation is that at the same time that Juneteenth is becoming a federal holiday, is the same time that it’s becoming illegal in many places across the country to teach about it,” Hagopian said.
Education has been a flashpoint around curriculum and COVID-19 safety across the country. Locally, the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. march had an education theme. Days before the march, students rallied in front of district headquarters in Sodo for safer learning conditions.
“This is our education. This is our future,” Mateja said. “Youth are only 24 percent of the population, but we’re, like, 100 percent of the future.”
Read more of the Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2022 issue.