At least 400 people packed the South Cafeteria at Oak Park and River Forest High School on Wednesday night for what was billed as a Community Conversation Around Hate Crimes.
The event, co-sponsored by OPRF District 200 and the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance, featured 14 panelists and was moderated by Reesheda Graham-Washington, the executive director of Communities First Association and the owner of LIVE Café.
In the last few weeks, Oak Park and River Forest High School has been rocked by at least three cases of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti found in bathroom stalls and on a shed near the high school’s tennis courts. Those incidents are currently under investigation by Oak Park police and D200 officials.
Students and parents have also publicly fumed that a teacher accused of saying the N— word in class within the last month was only placed on a short administrative leave.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the standing-room-only space was as tense as it was dense. Martin Luther King and James Baldwin were quoted. People shared anecdotes of racial trauma and current OPRF students shared experiences of being too afraid to learn, a plea that underscored their desire for safe spaces.
“Once fear is let out, it’s very difficult to put back in the bottle,” said one of the panelists, Rabbi Adir Glick, of West Suburban Temple Har Zion.
Michala Anderson, a student-activist with Students Advocating for Equity, or SAFE, said that she was “disappointed it had to come to this.”
This, for OPRF student and SAFE member Naomi Leach, being yet another emergency meeting called as a result of racist actions that falls within a pattern of endless dialogue and no direct action.
“This happens all the time,” Leach said. “We have a forum, we talk, we go home, pat ourselves on the back … and it’s over. But it’s not over.”
Some Jewish students lamented that anti-Semitism has been altogether missing from the collective dialogue around hate crimes.
“Jews are also in pain,” said OPRF student Ella Lambert, a member of Jewish Student Connection. Lambert said that Jews at the school “have felt underrepresented and ignored.”
District 200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, Assistant Supt. Greg Johnson and D200 Board President Jackie Moore, all of whom were panelists, fielded a barrage of questions from students about how the school is communicating to students and families about racist incidents and what they’re doing to prevent them.
The explanations provided by top school officials, however, were not satisfactory to many of the frustrated and anxious students, parents and community members in the audience.
Pruitt-Adams explained that the school is bound by layers of caution, such as laws and procedures related to privacy protections that dictate how much information they can reveal about individual cases.
Students expressed frustration that conversations with teachers about race too often feel forced (teachers only engage because “they got an email,” said one student) or uneven. Some students added that it’s too difficult to switch out of a class in which they feel uncomfortable.
“How do you plan to create consistency around the discussions we have,” asked one student, an OPRF senior. “For example, I only talked about race for second and eighth periods, but some people have talked about it all day.”
Pruitt-Adams said that she would get more information about why it’s so difficult to switch classes and suggested students go through restorative justice practices with teachers while Moore said the district is trying to create some consistency around the racial dialogue.
“One of [our board goals] has been to look at how things are going systemically,” said Moore. “It shouldn’t be hit or miss, or luck of the draw, that you get an educator or counselor that is on top of things from your perspective. The training has to be across the board.”
Moore said the board has been working on measuring ways “to be sure that all our students are having the right kind or the same experiences, to a certain extent, when we talk about racial equity or rigor.”
Johnson, who heads up curriculum and instruction, said the district has been deliberately working to make sure that racial consciousness becomes more central to the classroom experience, particularly for teachers.
And Pruitt-Adams explained that she and OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse, who was out sick during Wednesday’s meeting, were working on putting together an advisory committee “across student groups” that would help the administration deal with racism and anti-Semitism on campus.
Moore said that she would ultimately like for students to have a seat at the school board table, so that their voices are more directly heard.
Wednesday’s meeting was just the latest gathering in a week full of them. The recent racist incidents prompted school officials to hold two all-student assemblies on Nov. 6 in the high school’s main auditorium.
During the first assembly, “several student protestors took the stage demanding change, including the adoption of a racial-equity policy and curriculum and hiring more teachers of color,” explained D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams in a letter emailed to families.
The superintendent added that some students walked out of the assembly and into the Student Center, where they gathered in an “impromptu protest demanding change.” The protest, Pruitt-Adams said, was peaceful.
Pruitt-Adams said that on Nov. 7, the district would replace “our planned professional development with an all-faculty and staff meeting” to discuss the recent incidents. She also urged students to immediately notify security personnel if they see any hate speech on campus.