Inequality in Schools: Students, Teachers, District Speaks Out

Fiona Murphy, Editor-in-Chief

June 5th, 2020

As anti-brutality protests and police response rock the nation, more questions rise over the nature of inequality and discrimination in the United States. Racism exists in our homes, our schools, our streets. While the nation’s streets flood with protesters, this question hits home: how are we addressing racism within the heart of the Arcata High School community? 

Until the age of 18, American children spend the majority of their lives in classrooms. Friendships are formed and lessons are learned. Yet, many Black students suffer at the hands of individuals and systems alike causing them harm. Change is needed. But what happens to Black students when they go unheard in our schools? We spoke to Black Student Union President Nishyra Aaron-Williams. 

Community members protested outside the Arcata City Hall. Fiona Murphy//Pepperbox

“At school, I was constantly sexualized for being a black girl. People would touch my hair even after I told them countless times to stop and to give me space. I would be groped, and called crazy for standing up for myself. I’m an ‘angry black girl’ when I show my emotions,” she said. 

“Students could get away with something, but I would get in trouble for doing the same thing.”

What Aaron-Williams experiences is in no way an isolated case. A U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis showed that in the 2013/14 school year, 39 percent of students suspended from school were Black. Black students make up 15.5 percent of the total population. Higher rates of discipline against Black students were present “regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”

Arcata High is not immune to these problems, though district leaders report that they are beginning to address the problems within the school. 

“As a district we have committed to professional development and training to help us identify bias in our site based practices,” Arcata High Principal Dave Navarrre said. 

This year, the school district started working with UCSF Healthy Environments And Response to Trauma in Schools to address trauma in schooling as well as other mental health programs. 

However, in Aaron-Williams’ experience, her voice as a Black student is not heard at school. She explained that when she stood up to other students or reported their behavior, nothing would happen. 

“Arcata High is not doing enough for black students. Staff can say they support us. White students say they support us. But what are they doing to help? No one is being held accountable,” she said. “We spend a majority of our time on campus. If we don’t feel safe or included, you are clearly not following your code of conduct. If ‘everyone is accepted’ then why don’t black students feel that they are?”

The Nohum school district leaders recently sent out a statement to the community in the wake of nationwide protests. They affirmed the presence of local problems as well as announcing a list of steps they are taking to address inequity. 

“In times like these, it is easy to point the finger at other institutions, but NHUHSD must address the fact that racism, both past and present, has caused inequitable outcomes for BIPOC in schools nationwide — a fact that is true for us here as well,” it stated. 

The list included reviewing policies, curriculum and hiring practices within a “racial equity lens”. They also plan to start a “listening campaign” with community members who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in order to create and change policy and other aspects of the schools. 

Whether these changes will be followed and make a difference remains to be seen. For years, students have faced discrimination on campus, for some they will graduate before meaningful change is made. 

Earlier this year, a group of students flew Trump flags right before a BSU assembly in what many perceived as a racially charged demonstration. Recently, numerous social media videos posted by Arcata High students surfaced that many students and staff view as racist. (article forthcoming) Numerous Arcata High teachers call for urgent action particularly on the part of White teachers and students. .

“Letters and conversations are only a starting point. There is an undeniable need for organizing, training, curriculum restructuring, representation, involvement, and accountability for our entire Nohum community,” English teacher Susan Clark-Luera said to Pepperbox. 

Arcata High Librarian Jennifer Berube explained that the goals stated “should have been accomplished long before George Floyd’s death.” However, she was thankful it was happening now. She went on to acknowledge the need for constant reeducation on racial issues and her hopes that others do as well. 

“Professional development could help many of us feel more prepared for conversations about racism and intolerance, but I hope the lack of it is not used as an excuse for avoiding moving forward,” she said. 

As the district attempts to reconcile with on campus racism and make changes, one thing is clear, words mean nothing without actions. 

“It’s one thing to say you’re supportive, but to actually show support and be there for students is way more important. It has more of an impact. It’s hard going to a predominately white school and being the only or one of the few black students in class. Do your part and do better by stepping up and making sure your students are feeling included and safe,” Aaron-Williams said.