Shawnee Mission East students demand school board address racism: ‘We're not going anywhere’
Students and community activists continue to protest Shawnee Mission East's response to a racist attack on a Black student. Several students attended Monday's school board meeting with duct tape over their mouths, bearing messages like “We don’t feel safe” and “Protect us.”
Shawnee Mission Superintendent Michelle Hubbard and some school board members told concerned parents and students on Monday that racial sensitivity and student safety continue to be top of mind, in the wake of an incident where a white male student made racist remarks and attacked a Black female in the Shawnee Mission East High School hallways last month.
Without offering specifics on punishment or other immediate action, Hubbard and two board members acknowledged that the district needs to do more to address the atmosphere of racial tension described by other students in the incident’s aftermath.
“I want to be very clear about one thing in particular: Racism has no place in our schools,” Hubbard said. “We will continue to listen to our students and our community. We know we still have work to do.”
Hubbard’s remarks followed a special public comment period before the board’s regular meeting. The meeting was attended by about 70 people, the majority of whom were there about the incident at SM East.
The fight, which was caught on video, showed an escalation of sharp words in a Shawnee Mission East hallway. At one point, a white male student charged down the hall toward a Black female student, Brey’Anna Brown, calling her the N-word and giving her a shove.
The fight that ensued between the two left Brown with injuries to her face and a broken nose, her father said. The boy has now been charged with felony aggravated battery.
Both students received suspensions from school, according to other students, prompting protests from some students who say Brown should not have faced punishment for defending herself.
Members of the public press board to do more
Public comment time on Monday was limited to the half-hour session before the regular board meeting began.
Dawn Rattan of Shawnee, who is also a an elected trustee of Johnson County Community College, urged the district’s leaders to take action to keep the schools safe.
“We already worry about gunmen infiltrating our schools,” she said. “Now we have to worry about students shouting racial slurs and throwing punches at our children in 2023.”
Grace Yasmine of Prairie Village said it’s not enough to say the district has resources for parents and students on inclusivity because the people who don’t believe they have a problem will not seek it out.
“This is not a method to cultivate change but put in place to mark done on a to-do list while our students suffer every day because the people charged in keeping them safe aren’t interested in doing the hard work to create change,” she said.
Brian Brown, former chair of the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said racism exists in Johnson County and all over the world. But in a written statement presented to the board Monday, Brown also said he believes diversity, equity and inclusion is important and a strategic focus of the administration.
Republican Party activist Debbie Detmer, a regular presence at the board’s public comments, drew a cool crowd response when she said the district’s efforts on equity and inclusivity are “pitting our children against each other,” and that issues like diversity and emotional learning should be left to the parents.
“I plead with you to stop this social experiment on our children,” she said.
'Only one of many racial attacks'
Nine SM East students also attended Monday’s meeting but didn’t speak. Instead, they all wore black masks covering the lower halves of their faces with pieces of duct tape over their mouths bearing messages like, “We don’t feel safe” and “Protect us.”
The students later said they intended to have a peaceful protest that keeps up public awareness of how they feel.
Jaxton Taylor, a senior, said the “Censorship” label on his mask referred to how administrators have tried to placate students about racial problems.
Kevin Gomez, a junior, wore a mask that said, “Am I next?”
Senior Natalia Rios said the point was to make people aware of what’s going on inside SM East.
“A lot of the time we are silent,” she said. But the fight was only one of many racial attacks that have happened at East, she continued.
“We want to really pressure the school board to let them know we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere.”
How the Shawnee Mission superintendent and board members responded
Hubbard and other board members offered a few comments during the regular board meeting after most of the public had left.
Hubbard said she is forbidden by law to comment on disciplinary actions taken against individual students but racist language and attacks are not tolerated in the district and “we continue to take action in numerous ways to uphold this commitment from our community and move this work forward. We will continue to listen to our students and our community. We know we still have work to do.”
SM South area board member Jessica Hembree said she’d spent a fair amount of campaign time in the recent election talking about commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“An event like this highlights that although the work is really, really central to Shawnee Mission I don’t think anyone gets to stand here and say we have it exactly right right now,” she said.
SM West area board member April Boyd-Noronha, the only Black school board member, read her own statement at the end of the meeting, noting that she has often been the only Black woman or the first Black woman in various roles during her life. A sense of belonging is central to learning, she said.
“I believe SMSD is fully aware that even before these recent events there is more work to be done,” she added.
This story was originally published by the Shawnee Mission Post.