SHS Administration Can Do More to Promote Cultural Awareness

Michael O’Connell and Kyle Halevi

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Recent incidents of racialized hate at Scituate High School have exposed striking administrative negligence–they seem surprised to discover what is universally familiar to the student body: a culture plagued by ignorance and unacceptable racist commentary.  Until now, the administration appeared to believe racist student behavior did not exist at SHS.  

Scituate is not alone in these unfortunate circumstances: incidents of racism occurred with alarming frequency on college campuses across the nation in November 2019.  Racist graffiti was painted across the campus of Syracuse University. Students at Iowa State University found racist stickers at bus stops, on light posts, and on dormitory walls. Perhaps most disgusting was the hanging of nooses at the campus of Auburn University—an obvious reference to the vile history of race lynchings in the American South.

Our school—at least according to its website homepage—promotes “acceptance and understanding in a spirit of global outreach.”  The reality seems different. In junior year history classes, students learn about the racist backlash in the South following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which made segregation in public schools illegal.  For white Northerners, there is an unspoken attitude of being above the kind of ignorant, immoral, and hateful thinking that defined that era of Southern social politics—yet here we are 60 years later having to explain why blackface is wrong, and why saying the N-word is deeply hurtful to people of color.

When speaking to the entire student body on Thursday, November 21st, Principal Robert Wargo asked students why they thought it was “okay” to use blackface or say the N-word.  Of course, no such justification exists, but Mr. Wargo’s question overlooks the culpability of the administration. Administrative inaction has allowed students to believe this kind of behavior would go unpunished.

The school administration’s stance on racist student behavior has (until now) been unclear–which represents a chief concern for students of color at SHS.  Sophomore Daleena Gebrehiwet said it best: “The school handbook says more about what you can do at a school dance than what happens if you get called the N-word.”  Junior Mackenzie Andrade detailed how she expressed concern to the administration about what kind of message not punishing racist actions might send:  “I have said to the face of the administration, ‘If you let this go, the next person is going to think that they can get away with it.’” According to Andrade, students of color felt that despite their encouragement, the administration would fail to appropriately punish those involved with the racist TikToks—reportedly their intuition came true.

SHS students are frustrated because an effective administrative response to racism seems so obvious.  According to senior Elijah Gantt, “If the word ‘racism’ was changed to ‘bullying,’ this would be so much different.”  Why has the school treated bullying any different than racism? Andrade thinks recent events have exposed administration hypocrisy.  Andrade said the administration’s frequent praise for the importance of students of color in the school community is shallow. “The important aspect we bring to the school is so regularly degraded,” she said.

An inconsistent dedication to cultural awareness has only made the administration’s stance on racism more unclear.  In just the past few years, Scituate High School hosted two events to encourage cultural humility. Unfortunately, screening The Hate U Give and presenting Mr. Joy may have been progressive measures by intention, but they were insignificant in impact.  Despite wishful thinking on the part of the administration, an annual passing focus on race will never bring about meaningful change.  

Recent administration action demonstrates a more focused effort than in the past.  Nevertheless, students of color at SHS are concerned: they question if this productive focus on race will be short-lived. “The day after we have this important discussion, there was an optional meeting, and since then there has been nothing,” said Gebrehiwet. “We want change,” said Andrade, adding, “just because we are having these little discussions along the way, doesn’t mean that when we come back from Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, etc. that we are just going to forget about this.” 

Watching the administration respond to recent racist incidents has been concerning, as they are seemingly surprised to uncover a facet of school culture familiar to most students.  Gantt said he no longer finds incidents of racism at Scituate High School particularly surprising. Junior Sanisa Savane says there is a counterproductive relationship between students of color and the administration: “If we don’t say anything to them, they won’t say anything to us. If they see that we won’t talk about something, then they feel that they can just leave it alone,” she said.  The dynamic that Savane identifies is an important one: the administration fails to respond proactively but instead operates reactionarily. Students perceive the administration as having brooked racist behavior until blackface crossed an ambiguous line. Andrade feels strongly that had white students been more upset, the administration would have responded more profoundly. “If more white students showed that they care, and said ‘this is hurting my friends, and it is affecting the way that we are all learning,’ then the school would take it more seriously,” she said.   Students of color are not confident the administration will solve these problems for them. They do not feel confrontation is safe or appropriate, and by Andrade’s own admission, confrontation risks playing into age-old stereotypes about the temperament of women of color.

When a racist meme was shared after the school assembly, the administration had an opportunity to present their position going forward–finally clarifying the punishment for students who act hatefully.  Some students believe the insulting way the meme referred to Mr. Wargo—and not it’s racist nature—was the real reason the student was met with such an exacting punishment. Though Mr. Wargo chose not to share what punishments students could face if they act with hate (and perhaps by doing so limited the effectiveness of his speech), students of color still appreciate the way Mr. Wargo’s speech struck a nerve with racist students.  “Some people don’t want these presentations to happen, so they will still have the opportunity to be ignorant,” Andrade said, adding, “people are scared” for the excuse of ignorance to be taken away. Andrade recognizes the importance of the precedent established at the school assembly: acting hatefully is, finally, in the eyes of the administration a deliberate decision.

The limited ability of the administration to respond to issues of racism is shocking.  Students of color want to be involved in the solution, but only if their suggestions are taken seriously.  “We know what we want to see happen,” said Gebrehiwet, “but with the power that the administration has, they could just be doing so much more.”  The reported involvement of attorneys and parents when punishing students for racist behavior is unacceptable; the administration’s unclear racism policies opened a door to opportunistic lawyers and embarrassed parents, to defend otherwise indefensible behavior.

However slow the administration may have been to address the gaps in their policies and practices, they have slowly begun to make the appropriate adjustments.  Students of color were frequently consulted by the SHS administration as they decided how to respond to the blackface incident. While the students of color appreciated being included in the decision-making process, they were also bothered by the perceived outsourcing of administrative responsibility.  “We’re just students,” said junior Sanisa Savane. Andrade added, “And we are being taken out of classes to do their job.” Andrade asked, “Is it our fault that some students don’t understand?” She emphasized that the burden to educate students on sensitive issues like race falls on the shoulders of parents and teachers—certainly not on the students of color who have had to survive the hateful consequences of unaddressed collective ignorance.

Furthermore, students of color find that a more diverse staff would be more suited to communicating the concerns of students of color into policy change.  Gebrehiwet explained why, saying, “No one understands when (we) get frustrated because this comes from years and years and years of being put into a different category because of the color of (our) skin.”  For students punished for making racist decisions, said Gebrehiwet, “It’s done after that day, or after those two or three days,” adding, “but we have to live with this constant feeling of being alone.” The distinction that Gebrehiwet identifies is an extremely important one: while white students and administrators may be inconvenienced, or distressed by the circumstances they find themselves in, their discomfort is temporary.  For students of color, this discomfort is a permanent part of life.

Inspired by the racial and wartime chaos of the late 1960s,  Marvin Gaye asked a simple question in his 1971 song, “What’s Going On.”  The title of Gaye’s song is especially pertinent to recent events at Scituate High School, but it is the lyrical wisdom the song provides that is most important:  “Talk to me, so you can see—Oh, what’s going on,” sang Gaye. Today, the same pleas for better communication persist. The purpose of writing this piece was to amplify student voices in Scituate, who have been steadfast and proud in their efforts to advance progress.  Advocacy can, however, only go so far; the responsibility to cultivate meaningful change is firmly in the hands of the administration. To do otherwise would, at the very least, be unlawful, and would portray with certainty a dastardly apathetic temperament. The advocacy and determination of students of color have been one of the most profound demonstrations of maturity and love in recent Scituate High School history–mature in its understanding of the large historical forces at play and loving in its faculty to expect more from Scituate students and staff.  It’s time these expectations be met.