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Chester County Press

‘Kennett Students Speak’ Shares Stories of Marginalization in School District

08/12/2020 05:23PM ● By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
This past Saturday afternoon, decades of whispering in the halls of the schools in the Kennett Consolidated School District finally reached higher decibels, when current and past students in the district came together at an online forum on Aug. 5 to express their belief that the district has failed to improve relations with its students of color and in fact has turned a blind eye to the many aspects of discrimination.

For nearly two hours, “Kennett Students Speak” helped to illuminate the experiences of several KCSD students, who shared their personal stories of being segregated, bullied, targeted, traumatized and categorized, in a district they said was doing a poor job of addressing – and improving – these conditions.

Naomi Simonson, a 2017 KHS graduate who co-hosted the event with 2018 KHS graduate Daniela Carmona, said the event was inspired by the stories shared on the Instagram page “Black Brown Chester County Speak,” which was recently created as a safe space for students in Chester County to comment on the types of discrimination they receive or received in their respective school districts. 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.

One former student reflected on the many racial biases she had heard during her 12 years as a student in the district that regularly targeted class demographics; identified certain schools in the district according to their percentage of students of color; discussed the frequency of administrators and teachers who falsely accused female students of color of dressing in an overtly sexual manner as opposed to their white classmates who dressed in a similar fashion; and emphasized the fact that students of color are likely to be punished more harshly for incidents than white students.

Simonson read a story sent to her by a recent KHS graduate, who shared his experiences of mental illness, which included being diagnosed with ADHD, as well as depression, behavior disorders and panic attacks he suffered nearly every morning before school. He wrote that he was often called the “R-word” and “Psycho” by students who were not disciplined for their behavior.

“We had countless meetings where we listened to administrative members express their anti-bullying sentiments,” he wrote. “We even got a few meetings with the students and their parents as well, but can count with fingers left to spare how many times actual disciplinary action was taken.

“I needed the administration to stand up for me when I couldn’t do it myself. The pain I suffered while in school stuck with me longer than I care to admit.”

Carmona read from a letter sent by a former KHS student who said she experienced racial categorization in the district, beginning when she was in elementary school. In second grade, she was admonished by a teacher for speaking Spanish among her friends. When she reached middle school, the school cafeteria became a segregated space between white students and Hispanic students and a place where she was often called racial slurs by white students. When she reached high school, she saw how some teachers and administrators treated students of color versus white students; in particular, students of color who attend honors-level classes.

‘Stand up for us’

“We love to praise our diversity,” she wrote. “Well, in order to praise it, we need to address all of these issues. Teachers, administrators and staff, when you leave here today, don’t come to us and say you feel our pain and that you feel sorry for all of the things we have gone through. Instead, say, ‘I am going to effect change in this district. I am going to uplift black and brown voices every day in my classroom. I am going to make sure to never again let a student be discriminated against for the color of their skin, their religion, their sexuality, their gender, etc. Stand up for us.”

A former student then shared her story of racial discrimination that began when she was a student at Greenwood Elementary School and continued through her senior year at KHS in 2018. She was frequently targeted for her Latinx heritage and was taunted by her classmates with racial slurs. She was criticized in class for reading slowly. When she was in the fifth grade, she was told by a white classmate, “You’re Mexican, so you live in a trailer and never take a shower and don’t own a washing machine.”

When she reached Kennett High School, she was asked by white students when she and her family would be deported from the United States.

She praised the event for allowing marginalized students to tell others about their experiences, and forcing the difficult conversation to move forward.

“For the longest time, all of us here have tried to speak like this to people and have been brushed aside or ignored,” she said. “It’s hard to speak when you are traumatized. A lot of people I did speak with would tell me that I was being dramatic.

“It’s sad that so many people don’t know the struggle of immigrants in the community, and that it’s only up to us to share that,” she continued. “Because everyone is so used to it, nobody calls it out, and when we try, we are told that we’re lucky to even be attending this school and getting a good education.”

“Kennett Students Speak” also revealed that discrimination in the district has not just been confined to the African American and Latinx student communities. A 2020 KHS graduate shared her experience as an LGBTQ student, which included the rampant use of slurs used against her and her LGBTQ classmates.

While she said the school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance created a safe space for her, the school was still in infiltrated with what she called “bouts of hate” toward gay students. She accused some teachers at the high school of building spaces where homophobia and other sorts of aggression is supported and continually promoted. She had one teacher, she said, who would regularly mock the LGBTQ community whenever it was mentioned.

“It makes students such as me who identify within the community really scared to be around other people who are using that slur just for fun, or think it’s cool to call out people for being gay, like it’s some kind of insult,” she said.

The Aug. 8 event took the place of a public gathering that was originally scheduled to take place on the steps of Kennett High School on Aug. 1. On July 31, however, Simonson, Carmona and fellow organizer Kassie Allyon decided to postpone the event on the recommendation of KCSD officials, who expressed their concern that the event could possibly lead to legal action against the organizers.

The first seeds of what became the Aug. 8 event were planted in June, when Carmona sent an email letter to KCSD Superintendent Dr. Dusty Blakey, the KCSD school board and district administration. The letter included a set of desirable changes that organizers were asking the district to consider in order to improve relations with marginalized students. The list included hiring teachers and district leaders who are representative of the student body; initiating mandatory and continuous anti bias and anti racist training for all KCSD employees; providing mental health resources, including but not limited to therapists and mental health education classes; revising an educational curriculum that accurately addresses the full scope of the U.S.’s history with injustice, ranging from class, racial, ethnic, religious and LGBTQ inequality; holding routine assemblies featuring speakers who address class, racial, religious and LGBTQ inequality; banning the “N-word” from the district’s academic curriculum; and creating a reformed discipline policy that does not over-discriminate against students of color.

Simonson clarified that these ideas should not be categorized as “demands,” but a call to the KCSD administration to use their powers to advocate for and protect students who have been disproportionately affected by various degrees of discrimination.

“This is a community effort, a conversation that we as marginalized students have had for a very long time among ourselves,” she said. “It’s when we work together with the administration that we will be able to institute the changes that we want to see.

“At the end of the day, every student has the right to have a positive and enriching experience in school, and that is a demand.

“We can’t legislate morality, but we can regulate behavior.”

The names of the students who shared their experiences have not been included in this news story, in order to protect their anonymity.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].