‘Kennett Students Speak’ Postponed, Aug. 8 Online Event Planned08/06/2020 06:00AM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
Normally, the long steps at the front of Kennett Square High School are most known for their use at the school’s annual Commencement exercises, when each graduate gets to walk in the limelight of his or her achievement before an admiring audience seated below.
On Aug. 1, those steps were to host “Kennett Students Speak,” a live event that would give several KHS students and graduates of color a forum to share their grievances against the school for what they deem has been racial insensitivity and marginalization of African-American and Hispanic students over the past several decades.
On July 31, however, event organizers – and KHS graduates – Naomi Simonson, Daniela Carmona and Kassie Allyon -- decided to postpone the event on the recommendation of officials in the Kennett Consolidated School District, who expressed concern that the event could possibly lead to legal action against the organizers.
In its place, a virtual event will be held on Aug. 8, beginning at 1 p.m. ([email protected].) In addition to guest speakers who will share their stories and concerns, the forum will be open to KHS students, alumni, school administration, teachers and families who live in the district.
“We wanted it on one hand to be cathartic for students past and present, to give them an opportunity to share their stories that may not have been heard or responded to the first time around,” Simonson said. “It was also an opportunity for the administration to listen to students in a way they hadn’t before. What you see throughout all the schools in the district is a lack of trust between students and the administrations, so we were hoping to present this event as a united front for everyone.”
If there was a galvanizing voice that inspired the now postponed Aug. 1 event, it was – and is – found in www.instagram.com/blackbrownchestercountyspeak, which was created as a safe space for students of color throughout Chester County to share their stories of discrimination, racism, homophobia, bullying and marginalization, either from student to student or student to teacher/administrator. The forum has received posts from students in the Avon Grove, Coatesville, Downingtown, Great Valley, Kennett, Octorara, Oxford Area, Unionville-Chadds Ford and West Chester school districts.
Simonson echoed many of sentiments of many of those posts on her Facebook page.
“For literal(ly) decades, students have fought to have their voice heard, and valued,” she wrote. “Students report other students and staff alike for their discriminatory behavior, yet no definitive actions are taken to stop what’s happening in kindergarten - 12th grade classrooms every day of the school year. As a result of this a toxic, psychologically traumatizing culture is perpetuated throughout the district.”
The Aug. 1 event was scheduled to include speakers from recent and past KHS graduating classes. “A lot of these experiences cut across years,” Simonson said. “We were just hoping to highlight the issues in a way that it hadn’t been before, because not only is it systemic, it’s been perpetuated consistently throughout the years. The issues that the 2010 graduate had are the same issues that 2020 graduates are having, as well.”
As the momentum of the Aug. 1 event continued to build on social media, Simonson said that she and her fellow organizers began to hear from a wide swath of the Kennett community, including current and past students who shared their stories. Not all comments were positive.
“We had a lot of students coming forward,” she said. “We had community members who had been part of similar efforts going back 15 to 25 years, who were part of the group who protested against guidance counselors who used to tell black and brown students that they shouldn’t pursue higher education. We also got a negative response, primarily from community members who wrote that during their time or their children’s time in the district, that they hadn’t experienced these things.
“We had a split between the people who said that this was their every day life and those who didn’t want to acknowledge the problem.”
Three weeks before they announced the event to the public, Simonson, Carmona and Allyon met with Kennett Consolidated School District Superintendent Dr. Dusty Blakey, Kennett High School Principal Dr. Jeremy Hritz and other district officials, to discuss the general outline of the forum. During the meeting, Dr. Blakey said that the district is currently creating several initiatives aimed at providing additional opportunities for students of color throughout the district.
While Simonson said she was encouraged to hear about the initiatives, she stressed the necessity to not bury past history, but to use it creatively in creating future solutions.
“You can’t effectively change the future if you do not address the past,” she said.
As the event date quickly approached, however, Simonson received a phone call from Dr. Blakey on July 24, who informed her that if students decided to come forward with their stories and include names of teaches and administrators, there was a concern that the organizers could be named in defamation suits initiated by individuals who may have been specifically referred to during the event.
On July 25, Simonson posted a notice on her Facebook page, and reached out for legal advice from local law firms. One week later, “Kennett Students Speak” was officially postponed.
“So many amazing lawyers and law firms lent their support, and while we felt comfortable moving forward, it became obvious that we didn’t have the support of the district in general,” said Simonson, who reaffirmed that the event’s purpose will be to raise awareness, not demonize specific individuals and the district as a whole. “This is a conversation that students with marginalized identities have had since the school’s creation. We talk among ourselves about what we go through all of the time, but this conversation was supposed to be different, in the sense that it would be the first time the administrative members were seeing and hearing the stories.”
Simonson said that she and her fellow organizers hope to schedule a live event sometime in the future, specifically for those in the district who do not have the technology to access the Aug. 8 online forum.
Kennett Consolidated School District officials did not respond to requests for comment.
To attend the Aug. 8 online “Kennett Students Speak” event beginning at 1 p.m., email [email protected].
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].