A controversial school assembly that occurred at Oak Park and River Forest High School last month has caused both the institution and the surrounding community to do some soul-searching. On Monday, that review took form at a special meeting of the OPRF school board.
On Feb. 27, OPRF principal Nathaniel Rouse convened about 350 African American students and staff members to discuss their experiences at the high school.
“The forum used a racial affinity group model to engage participants in a deeper conversation around the national theme ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and was planned as part of OPRF’s ongoing efforts to look at issues of racial equity in the high school, the school community and around the country,” according to a statement released by school officials after the assembly was held.
But both upset and support quickly followed the event — from some white students who were reportedly turned away from the assembly, from their parents and both criticism and backing from the wider Oak Park and River Forest community.
News of the all-black gathering quickly spread across the Internet and was picked up by a range of platforms and publications such as Yahoo Parenting, the Washington Times, the Independent (a U.K. newspaper) and Education News — the latter of which posted a story on the event with the headline, “Segregation lives at Oak Park and River Forest High School.”
On Monday, March 16, the District 200 Board of Education held a special meeting to deal with the fallout, moving from their usual board room space to a much larger space down the hall to accommodate the more than 100 people who showed up to what would be an emotionally fraught three-hour exploration on, among other things, race relations, white privilege, equity, the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and Oak Park’s idea of progress.
“I sort of felt good about going to a diverse high school,” said Katie O’Keefe, a 35-year resident of Oak Park and OPRF alumna who now teaches at the school. “I would pat myself on the back. Our valedictorian speech was about how going to Oak Park could prevent you from becoming like Archie Bunker.”
O’Keefe said it wasn’t until she became a teacher at the school that she was able to recognize the alternate reality experienced by OPRF’s students of color. And after reading comments posted on various websites and social media platforms, O’Keefe said she was troubled by some of the sentiments of her former classmates, some of whom said the Black Lives event was racist.
John Callahan voiced personal support for the principal but was critical of the assembly. “I think this forum was bad, bad for our organization. … It’s divisive, it separates the races. We talk about having this bastion of inclusiveness in this school and we divided it among race.”
Most in attendance Monday said the event was necessary to allow black students to air real grievances that could only be openly expressed among peers who share the lived experience of those grievances. Some in attendance proffered that, had the assembly been exclusive to female or Chinese students, Monday night’s meeting would have been unnecessary.
“We were bringing out confidence in more of our peer members … in giving these teens the environment to openly speak and express how they felt to one another,” said Justin Maxwell, a student who attended the assembly. “There’s a huge difference [between] a [non-black] supporter and someone who is actually fighting with you or behind you.”