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For Black students in Kansas City's suburbs, attending school can mean regularly facing racist bullying

Portrait of two African American women, a mother and daughter, in glasses.
Luke X. Martin
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KCUR 89.3
Myora Slaughter, left, graduated from high school last year. She and her mother, Nadia Curren-Thomas, said racism and discrimination was a regular occurrence while Slaughter was a student and softball player in Liberty and Blue Springs.

More suburban school districts are talking about diversity and inclusion, but their Black students say they continue to face racism and discrimination.

The first time Nadia Curren-Thomas talked to her daughter about race, she was a kindergartener in the Liberty, Missouri, school district.

Myora Slaughter admits she had a meltdown at school that day, partly because she couldn’t communicate her needs. What she and her mother still don’t understand, 13 years later, is why it took seven police officers to escort her to the principal’s office.

“At that point we immediately took her to Aunt Donna's house — to daycare," Curren-Thomas said. "Aunt Donna literally set Myora down and told her, 'You are out here with these predominantly white folks. They already think you're less than, they already think you're insignificant. You are not allowed to show them that. You are there to show them how bright you are.’”

The experience was traumatic and stuck with Slaughter, who graduated from Blue Springs High School last year and now attends college in Philadelphia. It wasn't the only time she faced racism at school.

“I went through a lot of trauma at a place that was supposed to be safe," Slaughter said.

Unfortunately, her experience as a Black student and athlete at a predominantly white school isn’t that unique. In recent months, Black students and parents from across the country have reported instances of bullying and harassment.

Curren-Thomas and Slaughter said things got worse during and after the Trump Administration.

"Oh, we've seen it on the softball field — we done seen it everywhere," said Curren-Thomas, 39.

"And the thing is," Slaughter chimed in, "we don't give reactions. (Because) the minute we give a reaction, we're the problem.”

In recent months, reports of racism at school or school-related functions have emerged in Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit, Raytown and Park Hill school districts in Missouri as well as Olathe and St. James Academy in Kansas.

A social media post featuring two white students holding up a racist homecoming sign went viral on social media last week.
Twitter
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A social media post featuring this photo of two white students holding a racist homecoming sign went viral on social media in September.

But Stacey Knoell, a former math teacher and executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, knows racism has been a fact of life far longer than it has been making headlines.

"To a certain extent, it's Tuesday in America," Knoell said. "There's always been this issue of how do we navigate … the predominant society that doesn't look like us.”

Knoell is Black, her husband is white, and they have two daughters in the Olathe School District. She’s told both children that the world sees them as Black, and it could affect how they are treated — not to traumatize them, she stressed, but to prepare them.

Knoell still thinks schools have managed a few steps forward.

"The fact that sometimes progress is messy and painful and bloody does not mean that it is not still progress," she said.

It's not that racist incidents are happening more frequently, they are just getting more publicity, Knoell said, and more white people are paying attention.

“It's been a problem in America literally since the inception of America, and I think that that truth is what's making certain segments of the dominant society very uncomfortable," she said.

School board furor

That unease has bubbled up at school board meetings across the metro, particularly over critical race theory, a legal framework that asserts racism is not just the product of individual bias — it’s embedded in legal systems and policies.

This year, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said only one district there includes CRT in curriculum. Kansas’ Board of Education maintains CRT is not and has never been a part of any academic standards.

But the backlash could undo and prevent more progress in educational equity and the teaching of African American history, advocates say.

During public comments at a school board meeting in October, Olathe East High School senior Javon Hollinshed was one of several people to discuss race and equity.

220104_LXM_YouthRacism_JavonHollinshed.jpg
Olathe Public Schools
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YouTube
Javon Hollinshed during the public comment portion of an Olathe school board meeting in October.

“As our community continues to diversify, we have to let our education reflect that," Hollinshed said. "We can’t let our students of the future be fooled into thinking that they don’t have roots in this country.”

According to the Roots of Structural Racism Project, suburban areas on both sides of the state line have grown increasingly diverse.

“Those students deserve to have a women’s studies class, or a Latinx class, or a Black history class. They deserve to have pride in themselves," said Hollinshed.

In response to pressure from students and community members, districts are talking more about diversity, equity and inclusion, encouraging professional development for staff, and, as happened in the Raytown C-2 District in Missouri recently, hosting public forums in response to racist incidents.

In October, Park Hill School District announced it was partnering with the NAACP of Kansas City after students circulated a petition calling for the return of slavery.

News outlets, including KCUR, reported at the time that students had circulated a petition calling for the return of slavery. But a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in November alleges the petition started as private bantering between a biracial student and a Black student.

The petition then found its way onto social media, touching off a media firestorm and leading to the expulsion of the biracial student and the disciplining of three other students who left online comments on the petition.

Good schools with bad records

Q Davis is a Black student at the University of Kansas, who graduated from Olathe South High School last year. For him, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 was a turning point.

"I started seeing, like, true colors of people come out," said Davis, whose first name is pronounced "John."

"We're dealing with someone's life here, you know, and they're trying to justify someone being murdered," he said. "I'll be honest with you, I kind of formed like a resentment towards white people."

220104_LXM_YouthRacism_theImels.jpg
Luke X. Martin
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KCUR 89.3
Zoey Imel, right, with her husband Jeff, left, and their 8th-grade son Kris. Zoey said she's not overly worried about her sons becoming the targets of racism, but wishes the Olathe School District would take a more proactive approach to dealing with discrimination and bias.

But Davis' mother, Zoey Imel, who also has an 8th-grader in Olathe Public Schools, said she's not overly concerned about her kids becoming the target for racism at school.

"I just thought it was a good school," the 54-year-old U.S. Army Reserve command sergeant major said. "They have great friends and (my sons are) not coming home and telling me, 'Hey mom, this white guy beat me up.'"

Still, after a social media post in September showing two white students holding a racist homecoming sign made headlines, Imel felt the school's administration didn't respond well.

At the time, officials at Olathe Public Schools and St. James Academy told KCUR they were investigating the incident, but couldn’t release details on disciplinary actions because of concerns about student privacy.

Instead, the district could have hosted community conversations centered on the incident, or educated students and staff about why the sign was racist, Imel suggested.

"Just to send this huge bulletin letter out to the parents and say, 'Hey, here's what happened. We're sorry, we're dealing with it' — but that was the end of it. Case closed," she said. "They don't act, they react."

Among the Black parents and students who spoke with KCUR, all said their schools have not done enough to address white supremacy and make students of color feel welcome.

Ephren Taylor is African American and has a grandson by the same name at Blue Valley North High School. Over the years, the elder Taylor has seen interest in equality wax and wane more than once. He called the latest surge a gimmick.

The younger Taylor has a large following on social media, where racism and bullying are rampant, he said, and it's hard to hold people accountable.

220104_LXM_YouthRacism_EphrenTaylor.jpg
Luke X. Martin
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KCUR 89.3
Ephren Taylor is a senior at Blue Valley North High School. He said discrimination of students is rampant online, where it's harder to hold people accountable.

On campus, Taylor used to worry about going to a predominantly white school, "but I don't feel like I do anymore," he said. "Not because the racism is not there anymore, I just learned to ignore it and move past it."

"To be honest with you," the elder Taylor said, "until old people die and you've got more of the mixing of the races — we're about five generations away from America changing."

In the meantime, Taylor and other Black parents said they will continue sending their kids to predominantly white, suburban schools, even if they don't have a good record of protecting Black students.

Johnson County has great schools, academically, but they still have room to grow, Taylor said. Why shouldn’t he and his family be the ones to help push them closer to the American ideal?

"We know that they're going to be in predominantly white classes, and so somebody's got to do it," he said, "and so it's going to be them."

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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