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KANSAS CITY- An online petition to reinstate slavery that made its rounds at a high school in Kansas City this month is the latest in a series of incidents sparking outrage from parents and students who say race-related controversies at the school are an all-too-common occurence.
In an email to parents at Park Hill South High School dated Sept. 22, Park Hill School District Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd acknowledged the petition – which was brought to officials’ attention nearly a week prior – by saying many people are “hurting” because of “unacceptable and racist statements online,” adding that Board of Education “prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation” and that discipline could equal “suspension or expulsion.” Cowherd did not share any specifics regarding the students involved nor whether they have been disciplined. The email also noted the district will set up meetings to “give people the opportunity to share how they feel.”
But parents say the district is doing little to mitigate the ongoing problems, including individual attacks on students based on their race.
“I have a disheartening feeling about the incident that happened at Park Hill South. I don’t feel like it was addressed properly or at all,” parent Jeff Holmes said during public comment at a Park Hill school board meeting last Thursday, adding that these issues span across the school district.
“I’ve heard all of the nice, kind words and I guess that they are okay, they are what they are but they are meaningless, hollow and insincere if we don’t see action,” he said.
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Park Hill South is only the latest school over the past week to make headlines for its handling of racial incidents. Just days after the petition circulated, school officials at Olathe South School, 30 minutes away from Kansas City, Missouri, are investigating a homecoming proposal poster that read “If I was Black I would be picking cotton but I’m white so I’m picking you for HOCO?” A photo of the offensive poster made its rounds on social media before school administrators caught wind of it.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said these types of derogatory occurrences are not new.
“All students – no matter their race or place – have a right to a public education in a safe learning environment. But right now, many of our students are scared, anxious, and feeling threatened. What happened at Park Hill South High School isn’t an isolated incident nor did it happen by accident,” she said in a statement to the PBS NewsHour.
NEA, a teachers union that advocates on behalf of educators nationwide, has received reports of “hostile and hateful environments” in schools across the country, she said.
“They have reported fake deportation notices being handed out and swastikas drawn in bathrooms. They have been targets of hate speech and seen derogatory images like nooses, racist graffiti and threats to our LGBTQ students,” Pringle said.
“When students feel that they are not welcome, their ability to learn and thrive is diminished.”
Last October, Park Hill South Principal Kerrie Herren apologized to the girls volleyball team after making them remove shirts that read “together we rise” before a game. The shirts were designed to promote racial unity, but Herren, then serving in an interim role, said the statement was “political” and erroneously likened wearing the shirts to wearing shirts that would promote the Ku Klux Klan.
“The volleyball girls had created t-shirts to wear in solidarity and I think the principal ran out on the floor and made them remove them,” said Julie Stutterheim, whose daughter attends LEAD High School, an innovation program that includes Park Hill South students. The incident continues to be a sore point for parents.
Joshua Clark, a parent who has one child in the Park Hill School District and has chosen to send another elsewhere because of these kinds of incidents, shared several emails he sent to the superintendent at the time, asking why Herren was subsequently promoted to principal after the incident.“It says to students and parents that the district does not care about Black and brown people,” Clark stated in the email.
“My initial reaction [to the latest petition] was here we go again, it is kind of unfortunate that things happen so much you kinda get desensitized to it,” said Clark, whose son attends the high school and told him about the petition. Clark said he has emailed the superintendent his thoughts about the incident.
“It just seems as if Park Hill School District is continuously playing catch-up and apologizing and acknowledging racist behavior that goes on in the district after the fact,” Clark wrote.
He said he and his wife had issues with his youngest daughter’s experience at the elementary school last year. “Some little girls at the school thought it would be funny to call her a monkey and tell her to go back to Africa,” he said. Clark added that his daughter kept getting in trouble for responding and as time went on, they decided to withdraw her from the school district altogether and enrolled her at a charter school.
“I drive 30 minutes into the city everyday to make sure my daughter has teachers that look like her, who think like her and who see her,’ he said.
District spokesperson Nicole Kirby, responding to a question about concern from parents that incidents, including the petition, were recurring issues that were not being addressed, said that Park Hill started working on addressing issues within their district in 2015 when Jeanette Cowherd became the superintendent. According to Kirby, it was one of her goals.
“It is clear that we have an issue and this goes to show not only do we need to be doing this work but we need to be doing more of it and faster,” she said.
Since that time, the district has done things like establish a hotline and an online portal for anonymous reporting of troubling incidents. However, parents, such as Clark, said they do not feel there was a clear way to report their child’s experiences and even when they reported, not much was done about it. When asked whether there was a clear reporting system in place to raise these concerns, Kirby said “I would like to think people would feel comfortable contacting their teacher and administrators.”
Stutterheim attended a previously scheduled meeting for parents on Sept. 20 where the pro-slavery petition was addressed. She said she learned about the incident earlier that day after picking her student up from school.
“She started telling me about her day then she got kind of quiet,” she explained. Stutterheim said her daughter, who is Ethiopian, shared that something “weird” happened at school before detailing to her that screenshots of a petition calling for a return to slavery were circulating around her school.
“She herself has experienced racism and I think it weighed on her,” she said. “I could tell there was a difference in experiences between her and my older daughter, who is white,” she said.
At the district’s board of education meeting Sept. 23, Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd opened the meeting with comments about the petition. “We’re hearing some concerns that the district is not doing anything about what happened recently at Park Hill South” she said. She added the “racist incident was unacceptable and would not be tolerated” and that the district “had a problem that must be addressed.”
Still, there was tension during the virtual meeting, which at times prompted back-and-forth arguing between parents and school board members. A voice from the audience could be heard saying, “I know you all are uncomfortable right now, so you don’t care about the safety of the students.” In response, one board member commented by saying “we aren’t uncomfortable, we are handling business.”
“We’re trying to share as much as we can to clarify that our policy prohibits this stuff,” Kirby said.
For Clark and many other parents who spoke to the NewsHour and those who spoke during Thursday’s board meeting, what has happened so far is too indicative of the past and not enough of future changes. “They need to acknowledge that this is not a problem that exists with one or two bad apples, this is a problem across the district,” he said.
Indigenous Xi, of Kansas City’s Revolutionary Black Panther Party, also spoke. “The hate you’ve experienced is not going to go away no matter what social consequences your peers may receive because the issue is systemic, not just individual.” He emphasized that though the petition was done by students, it affected all black people and called for disciplinary action for all students and staff involved.
Kirby said the district will continue to hold meetings with families across the district to better understand their experiences.
“We’ve already started that and it brought up some other issues we need to be addressing,” she said. She added the superintendent was bringing in experts to help them navigate how to move forward. “We need somebody who has a deeper experience than we do.”
Pringle of NEA said to move forward, students need an education that’s honest “about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what’s right.”
This story has been updated to clarify the LEAD program’s relationship with Park Hill South High School.
Gabrielle Hays is a Communities Reporter for the PBS NewsHour out of St. Louis.
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