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Shawnee Mission East student charged with felony in racist attack. Here's what we know

Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village.
Shawnee Mission Post
Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village.

A white male student at Shawnee Mission East High School was charged with aggravated battery after calling a Black female student the N-word and attacking her. A number of students walked out of class over the school's handling of the incident, and another protest is planned for Thursday.

A white male student has been charged with a felony for attacking a Black female student in a racist attack at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village. The incident has sparked an outcry among students and protests against the school's response.

Video circulating online and published by the Kansas City Defendershows a white male student and Black female student getting into a confrontation in a hallway inside the school. Court records indicate the incident took place on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

In the video, both students can be seen walking towards each other before the male student calls the female student the N-word and shoves her. Both then begin throwing punches.

During the course of the video, the white male student can be heard saying the N-word multiple times before other students and staff members come to break up the fight.

shawnee mission east fight.mp4

The girl involved in the incident told Kansas City Star columnist Toriano Porter that she was defending a classmate who another student had referred to as a slave. Part of that interaction was captured in a second video published by the Defender.

On Wednesday, the white male student was charged with felony aggravated battery with great bodily harm, according to court records. He is scheduled to appear in court on December 6. A criminal complaint alleges he "unlawfully, feloniously and knowingly cause great bodily harm … or disfigurement” to the female student.

Records show the 15-year-old — whom KCUR is not naming because he is a minor — was also charged with aggravated assault and battery in June. Court documents show an emergency review hearing for that case was held Wednesday, and the teen was remanded into custody.

Both students were reportedly suspended, prompting walkout

District officials say they cannot disclose any disciplinary action taken against specific students.

Both the Star and the Kansas City Defender, a local nonprofit digital media startup focused on Black issues, cite multiple students who say both the white male student and Black female student have been suspended.

According to the Defender, the Black female student reportedly suffered a broken nose as a result of the fight and had to go to the hospital.

Roughly 100 students walked out of school on Monday at Shawnee Mission East, in protest over the school’s handling of the incident.

Students interviewed during the protest by the Star said the incident was part of a larger pattern at Shawnee Mission East that has not been adequately addressed, leaving students of color at the school feeling marginalized and fearful.

SM East principal Jason Peres sent a message to families after Monday’s walkout, which said, in part, “Shawnee Mission East faculty, staff, and administration supports students expressing their voice. As part of that effort, I have recently had some very important conversations with students. As a school and community, we know that in order for students to learn, they must first feel safe and supported … The words we use matter. Racially charged language, insults, and slurs will not be tolerated in our school.”

The Defender, through its Black Student Solidarity Network, is now organizing a protest Thursday afternoon outside the Shawnee Mission School District’s Center for Academic Achievement on 71st Street.

Shawnee Mission East in Prairie Village was ranked third best high school in the state on a 2022 U.S. News and World Report list.
Shawnee Mission Post
Shawnee Mission East in Prairie Village was ranked third best high school in the state on a 2022 U.S. News and World Report list.

Shawnee Mission School District communications director David Smith gave the Post the following statement:

“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. The Shawnee Mission School District has a non-discrimination, non-harassment policy that is applied and enforced across all our buildings. Board of Education Policy AC strictly prohibits any form of discrimination or harassment within the school environment. All student handbooks contain a notice of non-discrimination, and are reviewed with students at the beginning of each school year. The non-discrimination policy prohibits student-on-student discrimination and harassment based on any protected classification, including race. 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. 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 District is saddened by this incident. As with many circumstances that gain social media attention, inaccurate information has spread in our community. The District has an obligation under federal law to protect the confidentiality of students involved in disciplinary incidents. Therefore, we are unable to share specific details.

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. 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.”

Diversity in the Shawnee Mission School District

Between 1994 and 2019, the proportion of Shawnee Mission students who identify as white fell from roughly 91% to slightly less than 64%.

At the same time, the proportion of Black students increased from 3.2% to nearly 9% and the proportion of Hispanic students grew from 2.6% to 19%.

Shawnee Mission East remains one of the most predominantly white high schools in the district, with nearly 83% of students there identifying as white and less than 2% as Black, according to the most recent district data.

In recent years, the district has made diversity a central plank of its long-term strategic plan and hired diversity, equity and inclusion coordinators.

Those moves followed parents and students bringing forward concerns about the district’s approach to diversity, particularly a lack of progress in hiring more teachers and staff members of color.

Between 1994 and 2019, the proportion of Shawnee Mission students who identify as white fell from roughly 91% to slightly less than 64%.
Shawnee Mission Post
Between 1994 and 2019, the proportion of Shawnee Mission students who identify as white fell from roughly 91% to slightly less than 64%.

The current SM East student handbook says “coercive, intimidating, violent, or harassing” behaviors are prohibited, including “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.”

The handbook outlines a four-tiered “disciplinary action chart,” with offenses and their according consequences moving up in severity, from less severe responses like an office referral or parent conference to more severe actions like suspensions and expulsions.

“Use of profane or obscene language” is listed as a “Level II” offense. “Fighting” and “significant use of profane or obscene language” are listed as “Level III” violations and “Level IV” offenses include acts like physical battery, distributing illegal drugs and prescription medications and property destruction.

The handbook says expulsions can be considered as a maximum consequence for both Level III and Level IV offenses.

The district’s anti-discrimination policy, last updated by the board of education in 2021, “strictly prohibits discrimination and harassment against students and employees” based on a number of categories, including race and skin color.

On Wednesday, school board president Mary Sinclair, who represents the SM East area, issued the following statement on behalf of the entire board:

“The Shawnee Mission School District has a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as reflected in Board of Education policy and the district Strategic Plan. 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. Student data privacy laws prohibit public school districts from informing the community about specific disciplinary actions taken. When students fall short of expectations, we will respond in an equitable and consistent manner, and we will continue to be diligent in our work to educate all our students about how to treat each other with dignity and respect.”

In a personal statement issued separate from the board as a whole, SM South area board member Jessica Hembree said, “I am 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.”

Race and racist incidents have put the district in the spotlight before

In May, students at SM North walked out in protest over an op-ed a longtime teacher at that school had written in which she alleged students were being indoctrinated with “woke ideology” in Shawnee Mission and that white students and teachers were frequently made to feel shamed for their skin color.

In 2018, a video of a classroom debate at SM East over the Confederate flag went viral. The debate had originally been organized and filmed in 2015 by students and then-history teacher David Muhammad about the use of the Confederate flag in modern American society.

In comments to the Star this week, Muhammad, who is now a dean at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri, said he hopes SM East and the district use this latest incident as an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with students about race and diversity.

This story was originally published by the Shawnee Mission Post.

Updated: November 29, 2023 at 3:27 PM CST
This story has been updated with charges against the white male student.
Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
Madeline Fox is the assistant news director for KCUR. Email me at madeline@kcur.org.
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