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A Serious Look At Racism in NCSD High Schools

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The issue became obvious when two freshmen athletes at Clackamas High School posted a racist thread on social media.  By the end of the school year, Clackamas High administrators knew they had to combat a growing problem with racism by asking teachers to address the issue in a pre-produced lesson plan.  Teachers at Sabin-Schellenberg used the same lesson to include CHS students who attended SSC classes during the period where it was being presented at CHS. Students were going to be asked to think about the use of words that had become way too easy to use in the halls, classrooms, buses and on social media.


Some students admitted they had no problem using the N word or calling someone the B word.  The usual response, when questioned by the administration about the vocal use of profanity was, “Everyone uses it and I don’t see it as a big deal.”   But, it appears it has become a big deal and not just at Clackamas High School.


For years, students took part in equity training called, Breaking Down The Walls.  It was a chance to take part in a program that was designed to unify, empower and engage every student to create a positive and supportive campus.  This year, NCSD did not use the company to come to each high school to share how to learn how to communicate effectively with different cultures, beliefs, or lifestyles.  Some students say they found the program successful in helping them learn more about others who appear different than themselves. Others say the program was a way to get out of class for a day.  


The Compass reporters spent time speaking with students, counselors, teachers, parents, and administrators to uncover how social media, a lack of formal assisted training in diversity, and culture has created a new sense of concern raised by some high school and district administrators.  This story takes a deep look into how the issue is impacting students at the three major high schools in NCSD. It has been written by students who attend the three schools.  – The Compass Publisher


The Clackamas High School Perspective on Language and Culture


Racism in schools has become increasingly problematic. Milwaukie, Rex Putnam, and Clackamas are three of the high schools where racism is being observed more closely. Students from The Compass are determined to uncover the reasoning behind why racism is happening, where it is happening, how we can break down the walls, how white privilege and the culture of our schools contribute to this issue, and more. Racism is evident everywhere but can also show up in the most discreet ways. Clackamas High School students interviewed have shared specific examples of racism that they have seen in the school. The most common example repeated by many students involved players on the Clackamas basketball team who posted a photo of a black male student in an Instagram group chat. The white members of the team made comments that were described as rude and racist. Other issues reported by current students and staff raise concerns over language that is being used, the culture of the school, where the racism is taking place, and specific incidences where students were treated with disrespect due to ethnicity.


Bruce Wales, the Dean of Students at CHS, says the most commonly used racial comment at CHS is, “The N-word. I think I would probably, and this is only a guess on my part, but males tend to say more of these comments than females. It’s usually underclassmen, but some upperclassmen do make these comments.” Mr. Wales explains that the students who say these comments,  “Are a wide variety, but there were a few instances with some sports teams this year, but other then that I hear racial comments in the hallways during passing time, or in the cafeteria. The most commonly used racial comment used is the N-word.” Wales said it seems to be where students are focusing on one culture more than others. “I don’t know very much about the Asian student union…I hear the N-word most often.”


Tammy O’Neill, the Principal at CHS, says there has been an increase in racist comments especially in “large organizations like schools, which are impacted gravely.” We here, at CHS, need students and all staff to come together and help let them know that this is not appropriate and this problem needs to be addressed.  They don’t understand that this language is hurtful and can harm someone.”


The language used by students plays a big role in the racial issues in our high schools. The way that students talk impacts their status at school. Students interviewed believe it is part of who they are friends with or where they may be in the scale of popularity. Natalie Justice, a sophomore at Clackamas, knows many different people and the offensive words that are commonly used. When asked about the derogatory terms that she hears being used, Justice explains that she hears “A lot of cursing for sure. Not necessarily derogatory unless they are jokes; and in that case it’s like racism, sexism… the N-word doesn’t come up that often, but when it does it’s way overused.” She explains that she mostly hears these words jokingly being used in big group settings. She adds, “They don’t mean it offensively… unless someone takes it the wrong way… I’ve barely heard them used as an insult.” Kiley Conley is a freshman at Clackamas and believes most of the racial slurs come from “White dudes who think they have power.” When it comes to the reason behind the terms being viewed as ‘okay’ by students, Conley blames it on students who “think it’s fine… they think no one will stop them.” She explains that people on social media use the word in “a joking matter… it’s become just a word and it’s not a bad word anymore.”


White privilege (or white skin privilege) also plays a big roles in racial issues at CHS. According to the definition in Wikipedia, “White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in Western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Most people experience white privilege at least once or twice in their lives and it’s almost certain that it’s experienced at school all the time.” Another teacher at Clackamas, who asked not to be identified, says “I think we could definitely manage it more by disciplining the kids better or in a more severe way. I don’t think these kids will learn their lesson from a two day suspension or a referral”. When asked about seeing the act happen at school they replied “Personally no I don’t see it. I’ve heard stories about it but never seen it take place in or outside my classroom”. Bridget McHone,  a freshman, says “Yes I have seen white privilege at school, on the bus, the hallway, bathrooms, it’s pretty much everywhere.” When asked how we should manage it she answered “I really don’t know how we can because no matter what we do there will always be those kids that don’t get punished”.


There was plenty of discussion of racism in the fall when the media reported on an incident involving students  on the freshmen basketball team. Clackamas High Administrators used Restorative Justice to deal with those involved in the incident.   Some of the players were also not allowed to return to the team for a number of games during the season.


Angela Ivanov is a freshmen at Clackamas who claims to see “Racism take place everywhere, but not all the time.” She says she mostly sees racism “When people are making jokes.” Angela was asked how people responded to the racism she saw. When something racist was being posted online, Angela said people responded by “Laughing and adding on comments.”


The Milwaukie/MAA High School Perspective on Language and Culture


Milwaukie High School/Milwaukie Academy of the Arts is a school that strives to create a safe environment for all students. The racism that exists in our country makes this goal a bit more difficult to reach. It is important to look at the environment students and teachers have created and look at the race culture within the school.


Milwaukie High School has mixed reviews. In a online survey for this story,  students and staff anonymously responded. 17.86% said they had been target of racism, 39.29% said they hadn’t been a target but knew someone who said they had been a target.When asked about the details of the incidents responded said “the N-word was used in a disrespectful way.” Another said,  “I’ve been told that I should not be here and implied that I should go back ‘Home’” Mr. Scholer, an English teacher says, “A student came to me and said that they were being made fun of or called out by other students and they were using racial remarks. It’s one of those things where the student is black and we talked about it and we feel that if he wasn’t black they wouldn’t of made those racist remarks or comments towards that student.”


        Trying to take steps towards a more accepting school culture, Milwaukie High School has done things to integrate talk about race, racism, and white privilege to classes through equity lessons. Equity lessons are taught by all teachers of all subjects, and have the intent of showing students that it’s okay to be uncomfortable while talking about race, but it’s not okay to feel unsafe. Ms. Faust, an Algebra teacher and a member of the equity task force that helped create the lessons, says, “I know the topics were chosen pretty carefully to try to start by helping people just realize that there can be other ways of looking at a situation, and I think that’s a good first step for a lot of people.”


MHS student Jaydon Ray, better known as Fish, says the lessons may not have made a difference in combating racism, “Yes, I think so. I think kids had no problem with it until they showed us those equity lessons, and then when we had it kids began to make a joke of it.” When asked if this meant he thought the lessons made things worse he said yes. After being asked what could be done better in the future, he responded with, “Not to do them, because they aren’t very good.”


Despite the kind and genuine motives the decision between whether or not they make a difference has been split. 48.15% saying it makes a positive difference in the school, “I think they’re opening up doors so we can see from everyone’s perspective.” says Parker Antrim, a freshman student at MAA. 44.44% of survey takers said that it makes no difference at all. With a smaller percentage (7.41%) saying that it makes a negative difference, with an anonymous person from the survey saying, “They made all white people out to be the devil. Felt bad for being white.”


Along with the equity lessons Milwaukie has Ascension and SAAAHA. Ascension is a group for Latin-American students to get together and get to know their culture, while SAAHA is the group for African-Americans to do the same. Students of color make up 45 % of MHS’ student body. White privilege may be a problem depending on who it’s coming from. “You get a whole different experience being a POC anywhere and the representation needs to improve in our school. There are times when I feel alone and deal with some things being Asian that some white students can’t ever relate to.” This student feels excluded from the white students to the point where she cannot relate to the others just because she’s Asian. This is what another student said, “I believe that white privilege exists everywhere.” A survey recently  provided by one of the MHS/MAA students for other MHS students, asked 28 others if they had ever been targeted at the point where they felt excluded because they weren’t white leading to racism showed 17.86% answered with Yes, 42.86% answered no. 39% percent of the students said that they had not experienced or heard it but knew of others who had experienced it. She also asked the students if white privilege existed at MHS and MAA and 75% of them said yes and 25% answered with a no.


One of the controversies being discussed is the argument of whether or not white students should be obligated to bleep out the ‘n’ word when singing a rap song. On one side of the argument, people are saying that white people aren’t permitted to say the ‘n’ word under any circumstances. Others argue that if the music artists didn’t want their fans to sing certain words, then they should not have put them in the song in the first place. Junior Jaydon Ray, says, “It’s not okay to say that, it’s kinda disrespectful, but in reality we have no control over people and it’s up to them to decide what person they want to be…they shouldn’t be able to say it.”


Breaking Down the Walls was a yearly event where students came together to become more of a community. It was meant to help students  interact with people outside their tight circle of friends, and learn from one another. Mr. Aguilar, while talking about Breaking Down The Walls, said, “Breaking Down The Walls is more of a bullying, emotional support, and I see equity lessons as teaching the general population about all the different, diverse groups we have.” And a student who answered the MHS Race Culture survey said that “It made people feel less alone.” When asked about bringing back BDTW, he said, “We couldn’t figure out how we could sustain that through the school year… And I look at this, the biggest piece, what course do we teach that in?”


Rex Putnam High School Perspective On Language and Culture


Every student at Putnam has gone through training and knows that racism can hurt people. When people think of racism they may think of violent incidents, but in reality racism is in simple conversations everyday. Recently, it has become more aware to school administrators that racism happens more than they thought. For students, racism has been a part of their school life. So why has racism finally been brought up and why is it been mandatory for students to take training on how to prevent racism? If racism has been going on longer and more frequent than administrators thought, is the racism so bad that it can not be mended? What does racism look like at Putnam?


Varsity Basketball Coach and Study Hall Monitor, Kevin Mixon, gave clues and cues on how this generation acts against discrimination at Putnam High School. Mixon stated his thoughts on what positive changes he has observed about racism at Putnam “When something happens it is dealt with, emotions are met, our administrators get to the core of the problem and they don’t just brush it off.” Mixon says there are some policies that help deal with the issue. He immediately stated, “I don’t know the district’s full policies with how this will be dealt with, but the opportunity will always present itself. People should use their voice and not just finger point to ‘avoid’ the problem…communicate it. That’s how it changes.”


Mixon then explained what he would say to students who may choose inappropriate comments in school. “People these days say these slang terms because it makes them ‘edgy or cool’.” He feels the students should  step up if they affected by racist behavior to “Police your peers.” He knows that in the heat of the moment he says, “Sometimes it can be hard to confront friends because they don’t wanna end up being ‘the snitch’. They don’t wanna put themselves into the situation or problem.” He also states “It’s practiced and then turned into a norm. No one wants the cloud of the problem to hang around them, so they don’t deal with it, and take care of the problem…kids hear it from their family, home, or now on the internet since almost all children have access to the internet….then after hearing the slang terms in music, and in everything around them in the world when they get mad at someone they use that exact words to find a ‘cool’ or ‘edgy’ way to hit them right in the spot where everything tumbles.” Mixon explains that he doesn’t judge people until he knows what’s in their hearts, because they might have a good reason for whatever they’re saying, so he tries to meet as many students as he can, so he can help them and be with them in their hard times. Mixon also states that “Bullying is a norm now…I have seen gender, gender is a big one. But I have seen weight discrimination more than racism which is a damn shame, straight up awful. I mostly hear it coming from young boys.” He also explains that people don’t understand what the gender terms are so they just freely say it, because they know consciously it wouldn’t be something good to say. “Kids hear it from someone, but think something else. Then try to make sense of it, so then it becomes more normal to people, because the tingle goes away because kids hear it everywhere they go.” Then Mixon also states what message he would tell the student body. “Please research your prejudice. The Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t meant to make it look like someone was better than another person, or more important. It was meant to show that we matter. That we matter as people…people these days take things way off the board…now if you’re tired of hearing about it, try living it…people don’t wanna be given things based on their race, or gender…so yes I believe we all matter not anyone is higher than someone else, but just that we all matter as people.”


At Putnam,  there are clubs such as Black Student Union and Latino Club. Both clubs are dedicated to making all students feel welcome and involved in the community. Cultural night is for anyone and everyone to attend, including parents and friends. This event was created by the Black Student Union group to build community inside and outside of the school. It is for getting to know people and their culture. This event includes drinks, food, music, and dancing. Inside of this club, you can come, play activities, chat with friends, and enjoy appetizers and beverages all provided by the school. It allows all Latinos to have a voice.


Angelica Marin, a freshman states, “ I think there’s a bunch of students that are racist but don’t think they’re racist, but Putnam overall isn’t racist. We do a lot to exclude the racism and have equality.” Many others have felt the same. Derek Douangphrachanh, a sophomore shares, “I think there’s racism everywhere, like every school,  and there’s never going to not be.”


Chey Mackenzie, a sophomore claims, “ There are people that make racist jokes, I don’t know if they mean it but yeah the school’s kinda racist but when people post and get in trouble they say it wasn’t serious and just a joke and it could be a joke. I don’t really know.”  Ozzy Mackenzie, Chey Mackenzie’s brother, opposes every recorded statement so far, “I hate how I always get pulled into these things,” he says, “no the school isn’t racist and we aren’t a bad school.”


In previous years the North Clackamas School District offered a program called “Breaking Down The Walls where students from the three main North Clackamas high schools gathered around to speak about the main issues with equity in their schools. In today’s presence they now only offer a similar program to teachers. Breaking Down the Walls is a comprehensive program designed to unify, empower, and engage every student to create a positive and supportive campus climate. This however, has also been removed from the school’s district.


Students of all colors at Rex Putnam High School have their differing views on racism at the school, based on their own experiences, or what they’ve seen. There are  people such as Freshman August Johnson who have seen racism at the school, Johnson says, “Yes, I’ve seen racism at Rex Putnam.It was at one of the football games at the beginning of the year. Students were surrounding a black student and calling him the ‘n’ word and it didn’t stop until a senior told them to stop. I don’t think we can fully fix this, racism will always be a part of our society.” RPHS administrators say they were not contacted and did not know about this when asked.


Aside from just seeing examples of racism displayed at the school, there are  those who have had it directed at them and it has had an effect on them. Hanna Tran comes from a Vietnamese background, she’s a Freshman at Putnam who says, “Racism is a problem everywhere and there is definitely racism at Putnam, but I don’t think it happens as much here. As an Asian American,  people have made really insensitive jokes towards me, and have offended my sense of racial identity. Racism towards Asians is usually passed and ‘labeled’ as not that big of a deal, many also implying that we are just sensitive. I try to not let that affect me as much”.

Juliet Rinson, who identifies as an Asian, says, “I think there is racism at Putnam.  I haven’t been affected but a few of my friends have been. A few months ago my friend was sort of discriminated against for her race and this guy in my class said ‘You’re Asian, you’re supposed to be smart, don’t you get A’s?’ And I think that anyone could change this by stepping up for each other and helping each other as a community”.

There was an incident involving some members of an RPHS baseball team this spring involving two photos shared on an Instagram account.  The administration says the students were involved in disciplinary action but could not site specifics because of confidentiality rules.

Gregg Griffin, a Putnam P.E. teacher and boys varsity basketball coach, when asked how he sees white privilege at Putnam says “I see white privilege with the groups people hangout with… some kids only hangout with kids like them, but they don’t do it intentionally”. He also says that part of the problem is that the students of color sometimes don’t have the comfort level to join those groups. Griffin states that since he started working at Putnam, the culture has changed a lot. “Especially with the Hispanic population…they are a lot more integrated into other groups, because it used to be us, and them.” There also apparently used to be a lot of gang activity in Putnam between the Hispanic students. Mr. Griffin says, “One time a Hispanic kid went up to another Hispanic kid and told him that his girlfriend was ugly.  Immediately after that the kid pulled out a knife and cut the kid’s face.” Mr Griffin says that he likes to address racism directly and that he likes to “call it out”. Griffin states, “In relationship to school, if you don’t call it out, it’s like saying that it’s okay.”


Andy Hill, the Strength Training and Health teacher at Putnam, was asked how he sees white privilege at school,  “White students sometimes can’t comprehend why there is a Black Student Union, or a Latino Club.” According to Hill, the school culture has changed mostly in the fact that “there has been an increase in students sense of entitlement, which is probably parent driven”. Hill said when addressing racism, he likes to do it directly. “I preferably like to talk to them about it.” One thing that Mr. Hill has witnessed was “ In the middle of class, a black student came into class late and his buddy said “oh hey, here comes N*gger’” he follows by saying “ although his buddy laughed, I still took care of the problem because it’s not okay… another instance was a group of Latino kids were talking to each other using derogatory terms about their own race.”


Not only Putnam, but in any school, can have a problem with racism. It can happen in big large groups, or even in a small group with your friends. It can happen in a small, quiet library or the loud, crowded cafeteria.  And when you’re in a big setting with lots of people, there is a choice: you can speak up against it, or leave it be. And sadly, most people leave it be, because many racist comments are seen as a joke nowadays. So going to hear the voices of students and staff who didn’t speak up before, they finally have a chance. English teacher Jill Colasuanno shared her knowledge on the location of these comments. Colasuanno says it occurs both in class and in the hallways, but it also “comes from ignorance.” Between small groups and large groups, she says it “happens in small groups more often.” Between after school and during school, she says it happens “equally.” Colasuanno also notes that “Students are unaware of (their) surroundings.”


Algebra teacher, Brock Freitag has been very outspoken against homophobia. When asked if he hears any racist comments, he says “I don’t all too often.” But when asked for more specific locations of racism, he states “generally in the halls during passing.” As well as the halls, Freitag also says he hears it mostly in “large settings.” It’s Freitag’s first year at Putnam and he thinks coming from other school districts, it’s not as much of a problem at Putnam. He states “coming from Oregon City, we’re miles away from where they are (in addressing racism).”


AVID and leadership teacher Traci Clarke has seen racism appear in new places other than just Putnam. She does say she “sees it in the halls,” but Clarke also claims to see it “online.” Clarke says “more direct things are online,” and “people are anonymous.”


Kim Street is the Dean of Students at Putnam and deals with students all day, every day. Street says the locations of the problems are in the halls and online. Street states “It’s more harmful on social media.” Based on size of the settings though Street says “It is in all different types of settings.” In reality, racism can happen in any social media, in any school, and any school district.


Breaking Down the Walls is a program designed to empower, unify, and create a positive and supportive school atmosphere. Speakers of the program travel around the country to thousands of high schools, inspiring students to encourage and support their peers. If these programs are put in place to unify, then why do students still not feel welcome in their school? Why are there racist comments shouted in the halls? Is this program working to prevent racism and bullying at Rex Putnam?


This past school year there was no Breaking Down The Walls intervention. The North Clackamas School District Equity Policy says “Instead, equity fosters an inclusive and barrier- free environment in which everyone will fully benefit.”  When asked about Breaking Down the Walls, Noelle Zentz, a counselor at Rex Putnam says “I’m not sure if I feel that Breaking Down The Walls was successful in addressing racism…I think it was successful in the years past in helping students to open up and be vulnerable with each other. ” North Clackamas equity programs are here to help students get a equal education that “will not be predicted nor predetermined by race, ethnicity, family…” The biggest problem still remains after these programs that, in the mission statement, seem to be pretty airtight.


Overall, there are a total of 1,171 students at Putnam. 1% of students are American Indian, 1% of students are Asian, 2% of students are African American, 19% of students are Hispanic, and 70% of students are White. 30% of students are minority, according to race, at Putnam.   


Students at CHS and SSC were asked to reflect on the lesson given to them in May.  Some students report that their teachers didn’t seem to take the lesson seriously or didn’t even share it in its entirety at school.  Others say their teachers spent more time on the lesson and included deep conversations that included questions on how students could respond to hearing racially charged conversations with purpose.  Next year, students at all three high schools are expected to hear the same or a similar lesson so that the issues are dealt with earlier in the year.

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A Serious Look At Racism in NCSD High Schools