It is a fine line being walked this winter at OPRF High School as the school’s leaders acknowledge and proclaim the historic truth of systemic racism in this institution. Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and Jackie Moore, president of the school board, have given voice and urgency to multiple efforts to address racial equity and acknowledge the continuing impact of white privilege at our public high school.
One key effort has been not only allowing but fostering student protest over baked-in inequity, over day-to-day diminishment of students of color in subtle and not subtle ways. Both Moore and Pruitt-Adams have directly engaged with students, many of them young women of color, listening to their frustration and upset, actively mentoring them in finding the most effective ways to express their reality and to make demands on a still reluctant system.
And this has worked. You can see it in the founding of student efforts such as SAFE (Students Advocating for Equity) and BLU (Black Leaders Union). You can see it in the student-driven effort to create the curriculum for a new fall course on equity. A couple of months back, you could see it when Pruitt-Adams basically invited a group of protesting students to take over the stage at a well-attended forum following the America to Me series. When Moore stood in solidarity with those students on that stage.
This past week, though, has brought new protests — a walkout and now a sit-in — also driven by OPRF students of color. The impetus for the Feb. 28 walkout was marking the seventh anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida and more generally police violence against minorities across America.
The walkout, which numbered hundreds of OPRF students and added many more Percy Julian Middle School students on a march toward Oak Park’s village hall and police station, was intended by student organizers to be a surprise. In a social media age it is tough to keep a secret, and school officials worked with police to assure safe passage for the march down Lake Street and Ridgeland Avenue.
The protests continued this week after the superintendent suspended two OPRF staffers — teacher and activist Anthony Clark and administrative assistant Shoneice Reynolds — for allegedly working with protest leaders to secretly plan the initial walkout. The school says it is investigating the actions of Clark and Reynolds. Students believe the school is punishing the pair and demands their reinstatement.
The timing got more complicated as the school board had set a “townhall meeting” for March 7 to talk with residents about racial equity and school safety. That has now been postponed.
Pruitt-Adams, meanwhile, has had multiple conversations and meetings with Antoine Ford, the lead student organizer, attempting to focus on the message of the protest and effective methods of having impact. So far, those efforts have not taken.
The superintendent, the board president, the special ed teacher/activist, the administrative assistant likely share some close version of the same goal: battle for equity while empowering students to play a key role. But they have different approaches and styles. Pruitt-Adams and Moore work one-on-one with students, guiding, advising. Clark, at core, is a community activist using political means and a strong social media following to stir action. He’s also on the payroll at OPRF and has to be bound by realistic expectations and limits on his interactions with students. Clark has teetered on this tightrope before.
This is the fine line. It is critical that our young people give voice to their pain, that they take effective action. It is a positive that top school leaders support these students. But this week we are finding out that steering protest from the top won’t always work. And steering it from the faculty and staff level is problematic.