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150 people attend meeting on Ladue district's racist incidents; second forum planned

Students linked arms to demonstrate unity during a planned walk out on Thursday afternoon. (Nov. 17, 2016)
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ladue Horton Watkins High School students linked arms to demonstrate unity during a planned walk-out a little more than a week ago. Students called on administrators to do more about racism and discrimination in their schools.

Updated Nov. 18 with corrected information about incidents — The St. Louis County NAACP is planning to host another town hall meeting to address fall-out from recent racist incidents at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, while district administrators are reaffirming their commitment to address the issues.

A little over a week ago, students staged a walk-out protest to call on the administration to respond more strongly to the events. Two white students were recently disciplined after both chanted "Trump, Trump, Trump" toward black students, and one of them told black students to go to the back of the bus. In another incident, a Hispanic student was disciplined for burning a black student with a hot glue gun and was charged with third-degree assault. The victim's mother initially posted on Facebook that the incident and response from the district "when it comes to African American students" was "sickening." But according to the St. Louis American, a police report indicates both the victim and the student who burned him said the attack was not racially motivated.

In response to the incidents and student protests, the county NAACP chapter met with school administrators and planned a community meeting this past Wednesday to hear more concerns from students, parents, teachers and community members. About 150 attended, as did Superintendent Dr. Donna Jahnke and school board president Sheri Glantz. Dr. Kimberly Norwood, Washington University professor of African and African American Studies, moderated the conversation.

District spokesperson Susan Downing called the event positive even though “a lot of difficult things were said and some of it was very hard to hear.” But John Gaskin III, a member of the NAACP’s national board of directors and a Ladue alumnus, said he was “quite impressed” by how the event was handled.

“Discussing race can be extremely compromising at times, it can be very sensitive and it can be offensive to some, but it was handled very well,” he said.

Downing said the district has had to reconcile a lot of “angry words” since the student walk-out, but it’s important “to understand what feeling is behind that that creates that kind of reaction.” She said the district must know people’s specific concerns before it can take action to fix problems.

“We don’t get to live in a little bubble where [racism] doesn’t exist,” she said. “If we just assume that it’s how people speak to each other or that teachers for some reason don’t believe that their African-American students can do work as challenging as white students and there’s some kind of unconscious bias there, the teachers may not even be aware of it, but it’s hurtful to the students. We have to hear those stories and we have to listen carefully to the themes so that we know what to fix.”

Katie Ciorba Von De Linde is a parent with three sons in the district who attended the meeting. She's also a member of the parents’ group LadueCAREs, which stands for Citizens Advocating for Racial Equity.

“We had actually some very young students even talking about their experience of kids being mean to them based on their skin color and saying things to them that were very hurtful to them and heard some of the pain they've been carrying around with them,” she said.

Ciorba Von De Linde said her children have previously told her about jokes and comments other students have made about race, and she talked to them about being an ally for their peers.

“This incident pulled off a Band-Aid and was able to show to administration, to white parents, to teachers, really the deep hurt and disease that has caused so many of our students and parents within our community to have really challenging experiences within the school setting,” she said.

But after attending the meeting, she said she thinks there is hope the Ladue school district can become an “exemplar place where all kids feel safe.”

“I really heard for the first time, the school district, the board, the administration, and a lot of parents talking about racism as the root of the problems that have been occurring not just in this incident that came up last week, but that has been occurring over these past years,” she said. “What I think is surprising now is that we are talking about it and that there’s going to be some real effort to create changes within our system.”

Downing said the community meeting also gave many alumni an opportunity to talk about their own experiences. She said while racism is not unique to the Ladue school district or even the St. Louis region, some alumni made the point that the recent events were not isolated incidents.

“I can imagine someone who experienced racism in our school district 20 years ago might go, ‘This is not something that’s new that just happened and it’s this isolated blip on the screen and it’ll go away and everything will be beautiful like it always has been,’” she said.

Gaskin said it provided a chance for school administrators to hear “how some of these longstanding problems we know today, how some of them originated and been in existence for decades now.”

The district previously announced it has brought in two outside organizations, Educational Equity Consultants and Diversity Awareness Partnership, to talk with students and teachers about “not only just having courageous conversations in our classrooms and making sure our teachers know how to productively and positively handle those conversations when they have them, but also to make sure that there are understandings about how we treat each other," Downing said.

“That doesn’t happen overnight. That comes very intentionally in every classroom, every day, that people understand what the expectations are, and teachers and students feel [when] something is said that doesn’t feel right, feel empowered and supported in saying, ‘That wasn’t okay,’” she said, noting student concerns over discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.

While the district has been “fully cooperative” and “very supportive,” Gaskin said he is concerned about that the outside consultants are being brought in for the right reasons.

“What we have to be very careful with is making sure that we’re not practicing window dressing, where we are bringing in a consultant for a few months and someone makes a major amount of money and a few months later the conversation is over and nothing really changed besides a document or a binder that sits on someone’s shelf at central office,” he said. “The organization is looking for policy changes and working with the board of education and the administration on some substantive policy changes and how students are supported and treated as a whole.”

Gaskin said his organization plans to meet with students, alumni, faculty and staff in small groups to hear more. Then, he said, his group will develop two final strategies to present to the district with specific requests and recommendations for resources and “long-standing, supported opportunities” for marginalized students.

“The question now for Ladue schools and the leadership is do you have the will to change?” he said. “Are they willing to bend over backwards to right some wrongs and change some things that have been occurring?”

But Downing emphasized the district “is not stepping back from this,” though she acknowledged there are no quick fixes. She said addressing institutional racism will be “front and center” of the district’s strategic plan that’s in development.

“We’re hearing the pain, we understand as best we can that there is an issue here that needs to be dealt with,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s hard to reassure people before it’s happened that there will be positive movement. I think there’s a fear that we’re all just waiting for this to go away and that’s kind of not how we operate.

“I know our superintendent Dr. Donna Jahnke is committed to that not happening, that this stays at the very forefront of who we are and what we do and where we put our focus and energy.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect only one white student was involved with telling black students to go to the back of the bus. This article also includes details from a police report that both the student who burned another with a hot glue gun and the victim indicated the incident was not racially motivated.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci