Truman High School played host Thursday night to a discussion of racism in public schools, specifically in how it’s present in classroom discipline.
Students from Truman and Van Horn high schools selected the topic, as well as the panelists for the event. Earlier this year, the American Public Square organization presented a model panel to the students in 11 different classes, teaching them how to engage in “civil dialogue about controversial topics.” The panel hosted at Truman High School was the culmination of those lessons.
After a brief introduction, panelists tackled systematic racism in schools, essentially, how two students can act in the same fashion but be treated differently based on the color of their skin.
Vanessa Ramirez, a 2017 Van Horn graduate and now a political science major at the University of Missouri, shared her experience from her last year of high school.
“I refused to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, and did not disrupt, did not say anything, did not do anything. I kept doing my math homework, and my teacher simply told me to get out.” said Ramirez. “All throughout high school I wasn’t a student who ever got kicked out of class, I wasn’t a student who walked out; I’ve never been in that instance. It was very new to me to get kicked out of class, especially over a particular instance where I was simply sitting down. In that instant, my whole world turned.”
Taking it further, Ramirez said there are daily posts on social media and on the news of instances of extreme reactions to students.
“Why are there black students being dragged out of the class by law enforcement? Why are there students being hit in their own classrooms?” Ramirez asked. She also gave the example of seeing a poster in high school declaring head coverings to be forbidden.
One of the panel’s key talking points was that one of the issues allowing racism to grow in schools is the reaction to symptoms, rather than tackling the source, which Justice Gatson, the Kansas City organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said is partially the policies set forth by the school.
Gatson said these policies are often problematic due to their vague wording. A teacher will discipline a student for “sass” or for not showing respect, but Gatson explained there isn’t any language being used to define what these terms mean across the board, and it’s left to teachers to enact discipline case by case.
Gatson encouraged others who are frustrated to attend school board meetings, and to run for school board offices, to change the policies creating the problems the students running the panel see.
Also on the panel were Wendy Kline, assistant principal at Truman High School, and former social studies teacher and assistant principal at Van Horn; and Eric Camburn, endowed chair for the Sherman Family Foundation, which promotes public education, and director of the Urban Education Research Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.