Racist meme at local school presents learning opportunity 


click to enlarge The response to racism in schools offers a learning opportunity of its own. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • The response to racism in schools offers a learning opportunity of its own.
Oct. 31, 2017, started out like any other day.

Urieda Weathington went about her morning bustle, waking up the kids, making breakfast and checking that everyone had their backpacks as she whisked her family out the door to head for school.

Pulling up to the parking lot of Cheyenne Mountain High School, where her son is a junior, Urieda chuckled to herself as she observed teenagers in hoodies spread across the lot listening to headphones or engrossed in their last minutes of texting, flirting and conversation before the bell rang.

She had no idea that by 11 a.m. she’d be back at the school, now in a complete panic over the safety of her child.

By that time, a meme with her son’s picture, manipulated so it appeared he was holding a knife, and featuring the words “around blacks never relax,” had circulated through the school via social media. Urieda remembers receiving at least 10 messages, including those from her daughter (who also attends CMHS) and friends alerting her to the meme.

Racially charged hate messages in schools aren’t new, and neither is the paper trail of a response that usually follows them — a response that fails to place such incidences in a larger societal context or generate any deep, authentic healing.

D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper believes his district responded appropriately. He brought the students (Urieda’s son and the meme’s creator, also a CMHS student) and their parents together on one occasion so the perpetrator could apologize. And the perpetrator faced other serious repercussions.

Cooper, who says he has “no tolerance” for racism, pointed out that the kid circulating the meme was not white, but Hispanic. But racism doesn’t only exists between whites and blacks.
Cooper also says he doesn’t think the incident was emblematic of a larger problem. There isn’t, he says, any widespread racial tension in the school or D-12, as evidenced by how outraged the student community was by the meme. Cooper says many parents and students agree with him, telling him that they feel safe within CMHS’s healthy culture of tolerance and acceptance.

In other words, this incident was the action of one individual. But was it?

Racism in schools via social media is trending. For instance, in Hurricane, Utah, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a student posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which she appeared to be lynched and had red crosses on her eyes. It was captioned “Happy National N——- Day.” Also in Utah, last October, a 10-second video of a group of girls from the cheerleading squad at Weber High School chanting “F—- N———” circulated through social media. Other instances have been reported in Baltimore, St. Louis, Iowa, and the Bay Area recently.

None of these students were charged with hate crimes. What’s interesting is the amount of sympathy some of these students have received for being “bullied” for their racism, while little has been said about the individuals in their schools who have been hurt by the perpetrators’ words and actions.

And is that really surprising given the rhetoric of President Donald Trump? Kids do dumb stuff, but the leader of this nation is promoting this behavior with his derogatory comments against black and brown countries, athletes of color, and his response to the attacks in Charlottesville last year.

It can be difficult to combat growing racism in schools. Cooper points out that when disciplining students, he must abide by state and federal privacy laws. (Urieda had to sign a release before Cooper could discuss her son’s case with the Indy.) That means he can’t generally tell the parent of a victim how he’s punished a perpetrator, leaving families with unresolved frustration.

Urieda’s son’s grades have suffered since the incident, she says, as has his desire to go to school. She claims to have lost her job while camping out at the school’s office until she felt comfortable her kids were safe. Given the news of police unjustly killing black boys, and a long history of racial injustice in schools, Urieda’s response is understandable. More than anything, she says, “I want change.”

In the 2014-15 school year, the National Center for Educational Statistics found diversity was lacking at CMHS, where there were 1,020 white kids, but just four American Indians, 53 Asian-Americans, 31 black students, 36 kids of two or more races, and 168 Hispanic students.

Urieda’s daughter, a 10th grader, says the CMHS lunchroom is often segregated by race and when she asks for help in the classroom, some of her teachers don’t demonstrate the same amount of care and concern as they do when a white or Hispanic students asks.

So maybe the meme has been dealt with. But there’s a larger learning opportunity here for all school districts, and we don’t have to wait for something to happen to be proactive. Our schools can work now to cultivate diversity appreciation and implement restorative justice practices.

State Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and his wife Lynn have long been involved in restorative justice, which Lee says could be incredibly helpful in this situation, or one like it. When done in a respectful atmosphere with a trained facilitator, real therapeutic healing between a
victim and their offender can take place.

Lee also says that most people have no idea of the deep-seated harm their actions can cause, and simply punishing a kid usually fails to promote community healing. “The punitive piece may or may not be appropriate,” Lee adds, “but it doesn’t bring people together, it doesn’t heal the harm. It may piss off the people who committed the offense, but it doesn’t do anything for the victim or the community.”

Racist actions in schools are bridge-building opportunities. It would be a shame to pass them up.

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