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Students see improvements after protesting racial hostilities at Ladue high school

Students stand together as sophomore Ali Brock speaks to Ladue schools Superintendent Donna Jahnke at a student protest on Nov. 16, 2016.
File photo, Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Students stand together as sophomore Ali Brock speaks to Ladue schools Superintendent Donna Jahnke at a student protest on Nov. 16, 2016.

When students at Ladue Horton Watkins High School staged two walkouts in November, they called for a stronger response to racial aggressions on campus — particularly an incident after the presidential election. A little over a month later, 16-year-old Niesha Ireland says the atmosphere at school still isn't perfect, but it's gotten a whole lot better.

“I still get those remarks in the hallway that aren’t too racist, but when you think about them, it’s like, ughhh,” Ireland said, rolling her eyes. “But at the same time it was way worse [before] — and the teachers wouldn’t catch it. Now the teacher will be like, ‘Excuse me, what did you just say?’ Maybe not all of the staff, but I do feel like they are hearing us out.”

Even before the walkout, district administrators had been working to resolve racial tensions in Ladue schools. Parents, outside consultants, community members and the local chapter of the NAACP have been included in the search for tangible solutions.

So far, the school is trying to standardize diversity training for staff, faculty and administrators. A “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” website is planned for February 2017 to serve all Ladue students, parents, staff, parents, media and the public. It will detail events, trainings, classroom programs, practices, policies, curricula and information about organizations the district is collaborating with to address “race issues and character education in general.”

During discussions with students, administrators heard complaints that the achievements and histories of people of color were not reflected in Ladue curricula. Efforts to change that have begun, with more to come in the new year, said Susan Downing, communications director for the school district.

“When students don’t see themselves — literally see themselves —  in the curriculum or in the images in the school, it’s hard to feel that they belong there, and that’s something that’s really very easy to fix,” Downing said.

The district also plans to hire more faculty of color, and is considering bringing back student teachers. Currently all classroom teachers in the Ladue District are certified.

Downing said the conflict that sparked the walkout is not singular to Ladue. She said schools across the region have seen similar tensions.

“There’s not a one size fits all solution to it. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, okay, we’re going to do these five things,’ because it’s so much more complex than that,” Downing said. “We literally teach children from the age of 3 to the age of 18, and this alone requires multiple approaches.”

Ireland, a high school junior, hopes to come back from the winter break and not have to “go through this again.” She and her classmates are willing to walk out, or stage another action to keep the school accountable to its promises. 

Ireland has one more year left at Ladue and, like most rising seniors, she's eager to graduate. In the meantime, she offers this advice for incoming freshmen: Speak up.

“When you see something, say something about it. If your teacher doesn’t acknowledge it, go to someone who you know will acknowledge it,” Ireland said. “Go to somebody you can identify with who will make sure it will be handled at a higher level, so no one else has to experience the same thing.”

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn