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#BlackatBLS campaign gets school officials’ ears

Boston Latin School seniors allege inaction on racism

Jule Pattison-Gordon
#BlackatBLS campaign gets school officials’ ears
Kylie Webster-Cazeau (left) and Meggie Noel, BLS seniors who launched #BlackatBLS, spoke before the Boston School Committee last Wednesday.

Boston Latin School seniors took to YouTube and Twitter recently to draw light to what they regard as widespread racism at the school and the administration’s inaction. Within a week, the seniors met with the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, gained attention of Mayor Martin Walsh and secured a reform plan from BLS Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta. Soon after, they testified before the Boston School Committee.

Two members of BLS Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge, 17-year-old Meggie Noel, president of the organization, and 18-year-old Kylie Webster-Cazeau, launched a social media campaign in which they called upon peers and alumni to share experiences of marginalization and racism, accompanied by the hashtag #BlackatBLS. The campaign prompted officials to promise of school system-wide change, including a more active approach to preventing and combating racism and consideration of greater student representation in policymaking.

On the web

Watch BLS BLACK’s video:

Campaign starts

Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau were moved to action in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI.

When the grand jury announced it would not indict the officer who killed Michael Brown, BLS students posted their reactions on Twitter, Noel recalled as she spoke before the Boston School Committee last week. What started as a “healthy debate” soon turned to hate speech. Some teens told their black peers to “go back to Africa” if they did not like how things were in the U.S. and spat racial slurs.

Members of BLS BLACK brought the incident before administrators the next day, turning in to the headmaster a binder full of printouts of racist tweets, Noel and Webster-Cazeau said. Months later, they say they continued to experience microaggressions and overt racism. As far as Noel and Webster-Cazeau could tell, the adults had taken no action. So the two seniors made a stand.

This year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Noel and Webster-Cazeau posted a video to YouTube asking peers, alumni and students at other schools to report their experiences of racism and cultural insensitivity on any social media accounts they had, using the hashtag #BlackatBLS. By the next day, the video garnered approximately 14,000 views and as the #BlackatBLS campaign gained steam, it became clear that racism was a common experience for many BLS students, something often overlooked by faculty.

Momentum continued to build.

Social media storm

In part, the campaign attests to the wide reach of social media and its power as a tool for activism.

“Many students felt as though going to our administration was ineffective. That is why we went to social media,” Webster-Cazeau said. “We took to social media because it was the only way we knew to get everyone’s thoughts and feelings in the same place. And it worked.”

Posts with the hashtag #BlackatBLS spread across Twitter. Other schools adopted their own versions. Boston Latin Academy started the hashtag #BlackatBLA and others discussed the overall school system, tagging posts with #BlackatBPS.

One Twitter user complained BLS teachers could not tell their black students apart; another said her teacher described Amy Tan books as “exotic” and “oriental.” Others wrote of causal racism and marginalization:

“When people tell you you’ll get into college only because you’re black #blackatbls” read one post.

“I don’t know how to describe you, you speak too white to be ghetto #blackatbls” recounted another.

Getting results at BLS

The outpouring produced promises of real change.

On Monday, Jan. 25, BLS Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta wrote a letter to the BPS community announcing the administration would collaborate with Colin Rose, BPS assistant superintendent of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps, to examine equity, identify needs and plan to address them. Proposed reforms include curriculum reassessment and faculty sharing of best practices for culturally competent instruction.

In the meantime, Mooney Teta outlined a six-point reform plan to be implemented immediately. The six steps aim to create a safer space for airing concerns, promote a respectful and supportive school environment and open dialogue around race.

In her letter, Mooney Teta promised the administration would:

  • “Establish a structure that will provide opportunity for open dialogue between students and school leadership in order to develop trust and provide a safe place for students to raise concerns.
  • Explore opportunities for leveraging student leaders who are engaged in social justice issues to take steps to develop a more tolerant, respectful school and stand up for one another.
  • Conduct and strengthen professional learning to develop greater cultural competency for faculty and provide them the tools to better facilitate discussions about issues of diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender and social class.
  • Clarify the mechanisms by which students can report inappropriate, hurtful or degrading behavior that they encounter within the school community. We need to insure that hateful, intolerant, disrespectful speech or actions will not be considered acceptable anywhere at BLS.
  • Facilitate required educational opportunities for students that include space for critical dialogue on issues of race.
  • Support plans for a Teach-In—a full day of workshops for students—under development by student leaders of B.L.A.C.K. in collaboration with other student-led cultural groups.”

At a meeting of the Boston School Committee, BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang praised the students’ bravery and said the system as a whole needs to implement changes.

Systemic reform

Speaking at the school committee meeting, Noel and Webster-Cazeau called for enduring systemic change.

“We don’t want to come back ten years from now and be sitting in some of the alumni places like, ‘I faced this too,’” Webster-Cazeau said.

Her point was underscored when committee member Jeri Robinson said that the accounts of racism brought back memories of her experience at Girl’s Latin School — now Boston Latin Academy — more than 50 years ago.

Noel and Webster-Cazeau said real change requires early intervention — for instance, introducing constructive conversations about race as early as elementary school.

Officials agreed that need for reform was districtwide.

“We need to create space to critically examine existence of race and cultural biases together as a BPS community,” School Superintendent Tommy Chang said at the school committee meeting.

Michael O’Neill, chair of the Boston School Committee, said BSC could take a “critical” role working with the district to implement and maintain reform.

“BSC could really take a leading role in this that would both perpetuate through graduating classes and really bring a broader issue,” he said.

Youth voice on youth issues

Looking at the two high school students before them, officials emphasized the need to give voices of youth greater authority in school reform.

Regina Robinson, BSC member, cautioned against adultism and said she was interested in a model in which student voice guides reform.

One way to do this? Give more power to BSC’s student representative to the school committee. City Councilor Tito Jackson said voting power needs to be granted to the student representative, and Noel questioned limiting that role to just one person.

“Why not have a student represent each [school], so that you can talk to different schools and just contact that person, and have a direct line?” she said. “If you’re working for the school, you’re working for the students. If you have a direct line of contact, maybe you can make that change.”

O’Neill asked the committee’s student representative, Savina Tapia, to take a leadership role in engaging the BSC board and fostering conversations with the Office of Equity, Office of Opportunity Achievement Gaps and school leaders.