What Black parents around Kansas City should know about protecting their kids from racism at school
A number of racist incidents at schools have made news in the Kansas City area over the last few years. Experts say reporting these incidents is key to ensuring students are free from discrimination in public school — a right they’re guaranteed by federal law.
Solomon Desta was working one day last May when he got a call that three of his son’s white classmates at Olathe South High School had handed him a piece of metal with the N-word carved into it.
Desta was angry.
“It was a Friday around 3 p.m. and they were trying to tell me things were handled correctly,” he said. “I said ‘No. When I come on Monday I will have to talk to you face-to-face.’ … I had to protect my son.”
Racism in school disproportionately hits Black students, who account for 15.1% of the national K-12 student population but make up 37% of racial harassment targets. The U.S. Department of Education received a record number of discrimination complaints last year, most based on race, disability or sex.
Desta’s son, Kirubel Solomon, had been weathering racial bullying at school for years. His father only got a sense of that when things came to a head over the piece of metal with the N-word carved in it. That’s when he learned those students had been harassing him all semester. In fact, he’d been the target of racist bullying since elementary school. Kirubel just didn’t know who to tell or how to make it stop.
He ultimately told his father that two of the boys were suspended for 10 days and the other got time in detention. (Restricted by privacy laws, the school has not talked publicly about any disciplinary action in the case.)
Experts on equity and legal rights in education say families shouldn’t tolerate discrimination. Here’s what you need to know if your child is experiencing racism in school:
Know your legal protections
The legal right to be free from racist discrimination in school is guaranteed in federal law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI applies in all states as long as a school receives federal funding. That means virtually all public school districts and charter schools.
Discrimination can be interpersonal — such as slurs, stereotypes or racist jokes. It can also include systemic practices that don’t give Black students equal opportunities to succeed.
For example, data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity showed that schools referred Black students to the police more often than white students. In Kansas, the police referral rate for Black students was nearly three times the rate for white students.
Title VI also covers discrimination based on national origin and includes the failure to provide language services for students, parents or guardians who aren’t comfortable speaking English.
A school that gets a report of racial harassment — such as verbal insults or racially-motivated violence — is obligated by law to investigate the alleged incident even if the misbehavior comes from other students.
If a school determines a situation has created a hostile environment severe enough to limit the victim’s ability to participate in or benefit from their education, it’s required to fix the situation. In some cases, a single incident can meet the legal standard for a hostile environment.
And the response needs to work, said Paige Joki, staff attorney at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania nonprofit.
“The school has to do something about” a hostile environment to comply with federal law, she said. “That includes doing more than what they’ve already tried that isn’t working.”
The law often doesn’t mandate specific remedies. That gives families an opportunity to request solutions tailored to their situation, ones they believe will make their students feel safe and supported, Joki said.
Reports of harassment and discrimination can also help schools chip away at patterns of racism, said Heather Fleming, the founder and director of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership.
“In some of the board meetings I’ve listened to around these issues, they say, ‘Well, there’s not that many issues. I haven’t heard anything about it,’” she said. “I hear about it all the time.”
Families may avoid reporting or following up because they believe nothing will truly change, Fleming said.
“That’s what we have to work to prevent,” she said. “Our students are entitled to learn in a safe environment and … have adults that are there to protect them.”
Schools can reduce racist incidents and encourage reporting when they happen with diversity, equity and inclusion education for staff and students, said Derald Davis, deputy superintendent and chief equity officer at Kansas City Public Schools.
“We don’t want to leave it to chance that we have (a) positive climate and culture,” he said.
Families can report discrimination to their school principal, he said. His team then follows up with an “empathy interview” with the person harmed. Davis said the district also trains and sometimes disciplines the person who caused the harm. Then, he said, the district investigates to see if the experience is widespread and requires a broader response.
Learn how others fought racism in school
Federal law protects all students from racial harassment, but no statute can magically control how students act toward each other.
In Kirubel Solomon’s case, the scrap of metal marked just the worst in a mounting string of racist insults.
“That was the biggest, most potent incident of (racism), but I’ve always experienced gestures of racism in the school district from elementary till now,” he said.
Stereotypical remarks about Black students being “thuggish” and “hood” are commonplace at his school, he said, as well as derogatory jokes about dark-skinned students such as “midnight black.”
“The whole culture of the building is backward,” said Kirubel, who’s a junior now.
When racism is deeply embedded in how a school operates, it can take ongoing work to combat it.
Dozens of students and parents from Olathe South held a protest after the May incident with a list of demands to the school district, including the firing of the former principal. He eventually resigned, which Kirubel sees as a step in the right direction so long as it is followed by continuous change.
Students and families don’t have to wait for the situation to escalate, like it did for Kirubel, before they act.
Talk with your child about racism in school
Kirubel said that the racist bullying he endured from the students in his jewelry class began in January. He said that the boys would taunt him with images of Black people getting lynched and by calling him the N-word. But until he received the metal scrap in May, he never intended to tell his parents. He didn’t want to make things worse.
“I had thought of it as like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna take it on the shoulder and not let it affect me too much,’” Kirubel said. “I’ve experienced it before.”
Desta said he understands why his son felt leery about telling him, but he always wants to know what is going on so he can protect his son.
“If he told me before,” the father said, “those things wouldn’t have gone further.”
Know the teachers and administrators
When Desta began to meet with school and district administration, he said that most officials were receptive to his concerns. He now has the contact information for the right people in the district and can set up meetings.
He’ll continue to demand accountability from administrators and advises other parents to do the same.
“Every teacher should be responsible for what happens during their class periods,” he said. “Their job isn’t just teaching academics, they should be creating a learning environment.”
Document, document, document
In general, Joki said, families dealing with racism in school should record as much as possible. That includes taking photos of offensive posters, screenshotting abusive texts or online posts, writing down details of in-person interactions and emailing administrators summaries of phone conversations.
Reporting exactly what was said, even if it’s uncomfortable to repeat curse words or racial slurs, can make it harder to ignore that the problem is racial harassment rather than some other form of bullying, she said. Noting potential witnesses helps, too. The Education Law Center offers a checklist of information to collect, though some is specific to Pennsylvania.
“Reporting what folks aren’t doing sometimes is just as important as reporting what folks are,” Joki said. “So if the slur was said, and there’s a teacher in the room, and they’re not responding, that’s really important.”
Specifically saying that a student is experiencing racial discrimination — or discrimination on the basis of their race, color or national origin — can also emphasize that a family knows its rights, Joki said.
Fleming, the director of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, said families can also reach out to her group or the nearest ACLU or NAACP chapter.
If reporting to the school doesn’t solve a problem, families can also report discrimination to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Find strength in numbers
One lone parent’s voice can bring results, such as in Desta’s case. But it can also be difficult for one individual to bring about change.
“You can’t have high-flying, world-class educational institutes without having significantly engaged parents in that process,” said Spark Bookhart, a lead organizer for the Parent Power Lab. That group tries to harness the collective power of parents to change schools in the Kansas City area.
He said the voices of parents have been systematically silenced in public schools.
Take restrictive visitor policies, which tightened or kept out all visitors during the pandemic. Bookhart said parents who are kept out of schools lose touch with what’s happening in them.
“If I’m by myself as a single parent I can whine about that condition until the cows come home,” he said, “and nothing will likely happen.”
Bookhart, the father of three school-aged children, said that parents taking control over their children’s schools is critical.
For example, Parent Power Lab and other local organizations intervened last year when Kansas City Public Schools considered closing 10 buildings.
“We decided that would be detrimental to our community,” Bookhart said. “We asked very vigorously for a new way to look at school closings.”
The school board eventually voted to close two schools rather than 10.
For Desta, bringing his demands to school officials helped change the policy on racial harassment in Olathe schools.
Harassment of any kind, including hate speech or racial slurs, was moved from a Class II to a Class III offense in the district’s student conduct code. That increased the possible penalties to include expulsion.