Johnson County school must do more about racism, hate speech, students say after attack

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Shawnee Mission students and community members are demanding school officials take a stronger stand against racism and implement steps toward deeper cultural change following a racist attack against a Black student.

Roughly 100 students walked out of Shawnee Mission East High School on Monday, calling out a pattern of racism and targeted violence at their school that they feel administrators do not take seriously enough.

High schoolers organized the protest after earlier this month, a white male student charged at a Black female student while shouting a racist slur, according to a video obtained by The Star.

He then shoved her, leading to both students throwing punches, in a fight that students claim left the girl in the hospital with a broken nose.

Following the incident and protest, the school district has offered a limited response.

District spokesman David Smith said in an email on Tuesday that, “It is a priority for the administration and the Board of the Shawnee Mission School District that all our students are treated with respect and feel welcome in our schools,” adding that, “The District is saddened by this incident.”

The district has not said what actions it took after the fight and refused to say whether police were called, citing student privacy issues.

“While we cannot share specific information about the incident or the District’s response, the District wants to reassure the community it takes proactive measures to create a safe educational environment where every student feels a sense of belonging. This includes extensive work to support diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, children make big and small mistakes every day. We will continue to respond to those mistakes in an equitable and consistent manner, and our efforts to educate our students about how to treat each other will be ongoing.”

The response has not been enough for those who have characterized the altercation as a hate crime, and have called on the district to issue more serious discipline for acts of racism.

A few students who watched the fight said they do not feel safe at school and were disappointed by the lack of communication from school officials about it.

“People don’t talk about this stuff because they don’t feel equipped to have a conversation. The reality is you have these students who are looking to teachers and administrators to be the educated ones in the room to guide them in these situations,” said David Muhammad, a former Shawnee Mission East teacher who is Black. “They’re in a vulnerable state.

“You can’t fix that just by saying we have a mission that everyone belongs here and we expect people to carry themselves in a certain way. It doesn’t work. There has to be a commitment to figuring out what’s really going on.”

In an email to families after Monday’s protest, Principal Jason Peres said, “As a school and community, we know that in order for students to learn, they must first feel safe and supported,” adding that staff, “will continue to do our absolute best to help every student who enters our school feel safe and supported so they can be at their very best.”

“The words we use matter. Racially charged language, insults, and slurs will not be tolerated in our school.”

Muhammad called the tension this week a “boiling point” at Shawnee Mission East.

“It’s easy to see because it’s so visible. The video and the incident is just an effect, it’s not the cause. My question is always, ‘What’s been going on before this?’” he said. “I’ve seen the video, and the child who used those words, that was not an impulsive decision. That was a moment where he got to a point where he felt comfortable enough to say those words. And when we get to a point of anger, our true selves come out.

“What does it say about the school environment that the child felt that comfortable? And what does it say that the young lady felt so enraged she was ready to combat him as well?”

Shawnee Mission East High School students walked out of class on Monday to push for systemic change, saying their school does not handle incidents of racism seriously enough.
Shawnee Mission East High School students walked out of class on Monday to push for systemic change, saying their school does not handle incidents of racism seriously enough.

Calls for stronger discipline and policies for hate speech

The district has declined to say what punishment it may have issued either student after the incident. A few students say that the white student received a suspension they felt was not a strong enough punishment.

“I personally think the district should have a harsher punishment for stuff like this,” student Arturo German said. “I thought he should’ve gotten expelled in the situation given but they thought that he only deserved a suspension.”

Senior Charlize Littlejohn said racism runs rampant at the school, including the use of slurs and microaggressions that she feels administrators have not handled appropriately.

“These people are not getting the discipline that they need, so no one’s going to take anything seriously, and they’re going to keep thinking they can do it,” Littlejohn told The Star on Monday.

The district, Smith said, has a policy prohibiting any discrimination or harassment, including racial discrimination or bullying among students. The student code of conduct prohibits the “use of profanity, personally insulting remarks, attacks on a person’s race, gender, nationality, religion, or behavior that disrupts learning or the safety of anyone in the environment.”

“While a hate crime (along with criminal conduct of any nature) would be a police matter, the District takes seriously its responsibility to maintain an educational environment that is free from discriminatory and harassing conduct,” he said. “When the administration determines that any student misconduct has occurred, including any conduct that would violate the District’s non-discrimination/non-harassment policy, then the discipline code is applied appropriately based on the facts of the specific circumstance.”

The student code of conduct does not specifically list the use of racial slurs or hate speech as an offense.

Spokeswoman Kristin Babcock said that in general, “any disciplinary decision or action related to a student behavior, and where it falls under the code of conduct, is going to depend on the context of each situation.

“A racial slur could potentially fall under the offense of use of profane or obscene language, but again, classification would depend on specific facts.”

The use of profane or obscene language is listed as a “Level II” offense in the student handbook, which could result in detention or a short-term suspension. Threats, fights and bullying are a more serious offense. The district notifies city police and school resource officers of any potential violation of the law, per its policy.

Following similar protests in the Olathe school district earlier this year — sparked by white students using a racial slur against a Black classmate — the school board voted to make racial harassment and hate speech a more serious offense under its student code of conduct. The district’s code of conduct specifically lists the use of “slurs” as an offense, unlike in Shawnee Mission.

Now in Olathe, the use of racial slurs, along with other forms of harassment, is a “Class III” offense, resulting in either suspension or expulsion. That was one of many changes Olathe students continue to push for, including the hiring of more diverse staff, more employee training and a system for students to more easily and confidentially report harassment and discrimination.

School board member Jessica Hembree told The Star that she is, “aware that other districts, like Olathe, have adopted changes to clarify consequences for racist acts and ensure safe, welcoming environments for all students. I am open to considering such changes in Shawnee Mission.”

Push for cultural change

Muhammad, who worked at Shawnee Mission East for several years until 2019, cautioned against focusing only on the immediate consequences.

“If you get caught up in just the consequence, there will not be restoration,” said Muhammad, who now works as dean of student services at the Barstow School. “There has to be a conversation around not just having consequences in place, but what’s leading to these kinds of instances. If you don’t, you will only have people who are better at not being caught. It won’t change the behavior.”

He argued that even with a “super harsh consequence for this young man, what is he going to learn from it other than the fact he got mad and got in trouble? The young lady is still sitting in that space as well, with no discussion between the two of them to get to a restorative point.”

Muhammad argued that there needs to be an open space for a conversation among everyone impacted.

“What if this young man’s friends feel the same way he does? What if his parents feel the same way? Where is the restoration?” he said. “Is there a space where Black students in the school, the kids who are frustrated, can talk about it? That’s what I worry about more so than the consequences.”

While teaching at Shawnee Mission East, Muhammad watched the student population slowly become more diverse, and said he made strides in his own work helping to create a community for students to come together. Old videos of Muhammad hosting debates on the Confederate flag and other divisive issues in a class of study hall students still occasionally go viral online, for example.

Shawnee Mission East, with nearly 1,700 students, is about 83% white. More than 8% of students are Hispanic, nearly 5% are multiracial and fewer than 2% are Black, according to Kansas State Department of Education data. Overall in the Shawnee Mission district, 61% of students are white, 20.5% are Hispanic and 9% are Black.

Across Shawnee Mission, school leaders and community members point to steady improvements, including the hiring of Shawnee Mission’s first-ever diversity coordinator in 2019, following a movement by parents pushing for more inclusive practices. School board candidates who support such diversity initiatives easily won their races in the Nov. 7 election.

Board president Mary Sinclair told The Star on Tuesday that the district “has a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as reflected” in board policy.

“We believe it is critically important to create a school environment where each student feels a sense of belonging, and has the support they need to achieve their personal best,” she said.

But some students and parents say it’s time to organize and force widespread change in the district.

Muhammad said he hopes the district will empower its diversity coordinator to guide the work moving forward to implement better practices.

“They need to create an action, reaction and proactive plan. Because this is going to highlight other issues going on at other schools in the district,” he said. “If you’re not on top of things, it could spiral into more frustrations. But you also have a moment where the veil has been lifted. And you can use this as a way to show why we actually need to take this seriously.

“This behavior is now in our face. Use it as leverage to do the right thing.”