High school students share their stories at a town hall meeting on racism
By Sabrina Holcomb
At the ripe old age of 15, Oregon student Donovan Scurlock, the son of a teacher, was so tired out from dealing with racism at school, he begged his parents to pack up the family and move to another state.
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“He was sobbing so hard, we could barely understand what he was saying,” says his mom, Eugene teacher Jennifer Scurlock. When three students of color—two of them in tears—transferred to her high school a few years later to escape blatant racism at their old campuses, it was the spark Scurlock needed to sound the alarm.
Working with colleagues from her local association, Scurlock started a series of town halls where students could safely tell their stories to educators and community leaders.
The stories were powerful and hard to hear:
- Lisa, an almost fanatically conscientious student, couldn’t understand why she had received zeros for lab work she knew she had completed and turned in, when her lab partner had received full credit. “When I went to my teacher about it he got an attitude. He and I both knew those labs were turned in. At that moment I realized that my partner was white and I was black.”
- When Marcus interviewed for the second trimester of his high school’s international baccalaureate program, the math teacher said everything she could to discourage him, even though Marcus had received “A’s” in his previous IB class. “I took the class anyway. She tried to make me sit in the back and gave me a ‘C,’ the only one I’ve gotten before or since.”
- Allison was bullied by middle school classmates who pulled her “frizzy” hair and called her on the phone pretending to order ethnic take out food. “They told everyone to hide their dogs from me because I was part Vietnamese and must eat dogs. They jumped me in the bathrooms but if I yelled at them or fought back, I was the one given in-school suspension.”
- Robert’s white classmate called him his African slave then bragged about not getting in trouble for it. “I get called the N word and other racial names daily. Emotionally, I’m broken, but none of my friends know that. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve given up on caring.”
“After hearing the students’ stories, educator after educator thanked us for opening their eyes,” says Scurlock. “One teary-eyed teacher told me she had no idea this is what kids of color were going through. Taking the time to listen to the students was an undeniable reminder to everyone in the room that we have a lot of work to do.”
Oregon is certainly not the only state struggling with race relations, but it’s the only state in the nation that was founded as an all-white utopia whose constitution forbade black people from living, or even working, within its borders.
The legacy of this supremacist history lingers to this day. Portland made the news last month when two brave residents were killed for coming to the aid of two young women of color who were being harassed by a man hurling anti-Muslim slurs.
Recent events have made Scurlock and her fellow educators even more determined to confront institutional racism within school communities head on.
“We have to be intentional about listening to our students,” says Scurlock, who has the support of the school superintendent. She plans to bring more student allies who are not youth of color into the conversation as she advocates for policies that support compassionate school climates.
In the meantime, students of color like Lisa must be hyper-vigilant.
“I’m very conscious of developing relationships with my white teachers and being a model student so they don’t stereotype me. But schools need to take responsibility for treating students equally,” she says. “We have assemblies for everything except racism. Why can’t we have assemblies for that?”