Scituate High School Confronts Racism

New incidents of racism prompt new response

Grace Goode and Valentine McNeilly

Racism is deeply rooted in America’s history, causing oppression, discrimination, and upheaval from when America was founded to the present day. At Scituate High School, America’s roots of racism are present, creating a series of racially charged incidents that have continued this year. Just one month into the 2020 school year, there have been multiple incidents of racist acts at Scituate High School through social media. Students, teachers, and members of the SHS administration have all been affected by recent incidents of racism, but as the community tries to move forward, many are wondering why these incidents keep occurring. 

Junior Claire Greene is the current secretary of the new SHS Anti-Racism Club, a club created in September 2020 to combat racism in Scituate. She recalls the most “prominent” incident of racism during her time at the high school was met with an underwhelming response from the administration. Led by former principal Robert Wargo, the response consisted of an assembly, preceded by a short presentation on the history of blackface. Greene felt the administration’s efforts “fell flat,” especially considering some students did not attend the assembly.

Despite these efforts, several more incidents of racism occurred. In the following and current school year, multiple students were found to be running a social media account targeting Asian people. The content included several stereotypes directed toward Asian people, as well as racial epithets. The most recent incident occurred when a student responded to a question in which they described the “American Dream” in a way many found offensive.

SHS history teacher Richard Kermond believes one reason some students seem comfortable openly expressing their views is because “kids are living deeply in a bubble” and there is “a lot of deeply ingrained racism in Massachusetts that has been around for a long time.”

On September 28th, 2020, an email was sent out to students and parents in which the administration urged students not to “react” to these issues. Scituate High School’s principal, Dr. Lisa Maguire, later clarified that “there was a misunderstanding of the spirit of that language,” and she did not mean to overlook students personally affected by these incidents or to invalidate emotional reactions to them. Dr. Maguire made it clear that Scituate High School denounces racism in all its forms. 

Scituate, a town long touted as the “most Irish town in America,” is not known for its racial or cultural diversity. According to 2019 enrollment data from the Massachusetts Department of Education, 93.1% of the school population is white, compared to 57.9% of the state. A mere 2.8% of students in Scituate identify as Black or African American and only 1.7% as Asian. Greene feels this contributes to racism in Scituate, saying, “We don’t have very many students of color at the school…there’s not a lot of varying cultures for people to learn about.”

The administration is taking steps toward stopping the spread of racism in the community. In an upcoming teacher Professional Development (PD) day on December 16th, this topic will be covered in order to train teachers on how to handle incidents of racism. Last year, there was teacher PD in the works on this topic, but plans were cut short with the pandemic. The school’s new administration, led by Dr. Maguire, has made a commitment to being an “anti-racist school” that is actively working to eliminate racism. 

Students who felt previous efforts were ineffective welcome this change. Junior Sarah Weinberg, vice president of the SHS Anti-Racism Club, said in the past, racist incidents have been “brushed under the rug” in regards to the administration’s responses. 

Furthermore, the administration’s response includes changes to the school’s handbook, assemblies, and ongoing meetings with district officials, the Scituate School Committee, and the administration of other schools in the district. All of these steps are being taken to determine how to address issues of racism and move forward as a community. 

Dr. Maguire explained that consequences are rendered using a three-level system to rank students offenses and assign appropriate consequences, three being the most serious. Dr. Maguire stated, “Something like hate, discrimination, anything that infringes on someone else’s civil rights…is a level three offense.” 

Assistant principal Karen Hughes elaborated on the changes to the handbook, saying, “One of the things we changed in specific [is] our standard for all student leaders, officers, and captains.” Hughes was referring to the new policy, requiring all students holding leadership positions, both athletic and academic, to adhere to the standards of behavior set forth in the handbook, including in school, out of school, and on social media. Students who do not adhere to these standards can, according to the handbook, be removed from leadership positions. 

Although the administration’s response undoubtedly sets the tone for the school, an almost equally important consideration is how students respond to their peers when these situations arise. Weinberg believes part of the problem is that “racist sentiments are reinforced and go unchallenged by peers and family…people don’t hold each other accountable for their actions.” Greene felt similarly, saying, “People feel comfortable that their racism isn’t going to get called out, and I think people assume no one is going to report anything–most people don’t have any friends of color–all their friends are white.” 

One of the many challenges faced when attempting to address an issue pertaining to racism is identifying the root cause of the problem. Weinberg believes Scituate’s curriculum is in part to blame, explaining, “A lot of the history and material we’ve been taught since elementary school has been taught from a white male perspective…[the curriculum] needs to include more about different races and ethnic groups.” Greene also believes Scituate needs to start with younger grades moving forward, advocating for “an ongoing commitment to teaching the younger grades about cultural bias and not being racist because it starts younger than high school.” To Kermond, these racist incidents “break apart the whole notion of community and to the people who are directly affected–it makes it not a place they want to be.” 

Hughes feels the issue is much larger than Scituate, stating it is going to be “a lifelong piece that we work on…as a human race.” Hughes believes these conflicts and issues have been present in our society for years, and states the issue has been “handed down from previous generations, and it’s not new to any district.” Hughes elaborated that the incidents of racism Scituate has experienced recently are related to the “climate around the presidential race,” along with many other factors, such as the current pandemic.

This summer, following the death of George Floyd, riots and protests broke out across the country–and Scituate was no exception. For several weeks, protesters gathered on the Town Common, and one of the chants recited at protests rings true now more than ever: “Scituate is not immune.” The recent incidents SHS has experienced seem to be a haunting manifestation of this claim. Scituate, a seemingly peaceful, quiet town, is certainly not immune from the chilling, centuries-old racism present in our country and our school.