“Our silence as a staff sends a message”: Teachers, Students Question Response to Racist Social Media Posts

Fiona Murphy, Editor-in-Chief

Isabel S. Wedll, Online Editor

June 6th, 2020

The recent “District Statement on Racial Equity” met swift backlash and raised questions over how the district has handled students’ past complaints about racism on campus and in social media. McKinleyville High Senior Zoe Thomson, who identifies as Indigenous, replied to all district staff asking district leaders where the solidarity had been during past incidents and included a video of a Tik Tok made by Arcata High students in the Arcata High School parking lot that many viewed as threatening and racist.

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“The actions of people in positions of power have normalized this racist behavior, this sexist behavior, these are acts of discrimination and outcasting and they have successfully silenced BIPOC,” Thomson said in an interview.

Some staff members reported it was the first time they were made aware of the video or that other racist videos circulated on social media.Teachers expressed anger over the lack of communication from administration.

Bridget Ocampo, an instructional aide who identifies as Mexican said, “Not knowing anything about this or any racist videos that students made is a literal slap on the face from the administrators. It shows that they don’t care to think about their staff that identify as a person of color. Sweeping it under the rug to make it go away is allowing students to think being racist is not a bad thing and that they can get away from it their whole lives.” 

Not only were teachers frustrated over communication, some worried about the message it sent to their Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color (BIPOC) students.  

“I was really upset that none of the staff knew about these racist Tik Tok videos going around when the students knew. I can only imagine how that made our BIPOC and POC students feel. Our silence as a staff sends a message whether we want it to or not,” Arcata French Teacher Davena Bagnall said. 

Some students spoke out. Many have seen racist videos and social media posts during their time in high school. They widely circulate even if they are later deleted.

“[Seeing those videos] doesn’t make me feel safe at that school, because who knows all the other people who have said or done racist or ignorant things at our school. It’s scary and to be honest, I’m glad I don’t go there anymore,” Jackie Garcia, a senior who identifies as Mexican, said.  

During instances of racist videos, students sometimes take it upon themselves to “call out” their peers. 

“I used to not say anything but after seeing the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement I realize I can’t say nothing,” Senior Jocelyn Bliven said, “I don’t really know what to do as I don’t have a TikTok, but reaching out to the person who posted it and saying that it is racist and not okay would be a good place to start, I think.” 

Arcata High Principal Dave Navarre forwarded the district’s policies on hate-motivated behavior and cyberbullying along with a statement about the school’s use of restorative justice in place of traditional discipline. 

“This will certainly be part of our work that was outlined in the District Statement on Racial Equity,” he wrote. 

Nic Collart, the McKinleyville High Principal, explained that because of certain laws they cannot share what consequences students face, so it can feel like it is “swept under the rug.” 

“My hope is always that the impact of the consequences and followup conversations help change the students who participated in the hate speech or cyberbullying and how they carry themselves moving forward can speak to the effectiveness of how the school handled the situation,” he wrote. 

The district policy on discrimination calls for education for students and staff on the policy, what discrimination is and how to report it. While that training has not been mandatory in the past, Superintendent Macdonald said that it will be in place going forward. 

“Faculty and staff will receive ongoing professional development that will address the systemic institutional racism that is pervasive in our society. This will include developing an understanding of White Privilege and implicit bias. There are many in our District that are deeply invested in tackling this issue, and we need to ensure that there is a level of competency around equity for all of us,” he wrote.

He also urged the community to learn from this instance of racism and others.

“Regarding recent incidents of social media expressions of racism, I absolutely find them offensive. I think we miss the point if we simply point fingers at “them.” These incidents happened in a climate that has normalized this behavior to the point that students felt comfortable making these posts public. These students need to be “called in” and allowed to grow from this every bit as much as they have been “called out” for their inappropriate behavior. If we believe that by simply disciplining them the issues of racial inequality will go away, we are making a grave error,” he said.

In an earlier statement released by the district, leadership  acknowledged past mistakes over racial issues and promised to work for change, outlining a list of steps. 

“We know that sincere words are not enough, we want you to know that we are

committed to making concrete, systemic changes to create a better, safer world,” it said.

Racist videos posted on social media does raise the question, what power do schools have to regulate student speech? Schools are able to discipline students if posts take place on a school campus or at school events. If the speech could be seen as threatening that too can be regulated. 

Based on the district’s cyberbullying policy, posts that create “an intimidating or hostile environment that substantially interferes with a student’s educational opportunities” are subject to discipline. 

As events unfold nationally, it is clear, district leaders, students and staff are reflecting on the district’s handling of past events and the direction for the future. 

“I don’t have the experience or education to decide what happens on any of these levels but I do think we should have more policies, we should have more requirements on what education courses you take,” Thomson said.