'Black Lives Matter' tests Oak Park's self-image

Black students and community members say school assembly dustup indicates divide between town's inclusive image and reality

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 22nd, 2015 12:55 AM

Ralph, It obviously was necessary for someone to have the authority to decide who should be admitted, because people were turned away. If there was no one there to enforce this policy, it wouldn't have been a black only school assembly.

Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 22nd, 2015 12:51 AM

Dylan, I am all for policies that benefit black people, but I disagree that institutionalized segregation is the way. Just because whites profited from discriminatory policies doesn't mean that segregation should continue. Your answer is that if they don't look black, then they're not. I suppose under your definition, a person who is part black, but doesn't look black should not be allowed to attend.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 9:41 PM

This event was held for those students who self-identify as being black or African American. It was not necessary for anyone to have the responsibility or authority to decide who should be admitted.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 6:57 PM

Cormac, I am of the opinion that the only way to address the history of oppression, and discrimination is to have policies that are to the specific benefit of black people only. White people benefited from racism and white supremacy, tons of wealth and opportunity was created from that benefit, so restitution is due. I did answer the question.If the person is not treated as black, then they are not black. If you are not black, then why would you be allowed to attend something that is intended to benefit black students?

Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 6:17 PM

Dylan, Firstly I'm well aware of the history of institutionalized racism in the US, which is why I brought up institutionalize segregation in the first place. second, no one is stopping anyone from having a meaningful discussion on black race issues, nor are they trying to make blacks uncomfortable. And just to keep things straight, the principal made the decision as to what HE thought would make students comfortable, not the students. Third, no one has implied the whites and blacks have equality. Its not about doing things on the terms of the white man, its about not segregating. You're making a lot of assumptions to support how you see things. And fine, biracial is 1/2 1/2, then I'll keep it to "mixed race". and you still haven't answered the question. would a "mixed race" kid who has black in him that doesn't look black be allowed to tend?

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 6:06 PM

Cormac, The United States government and the States instituted a brutal and violent policy of racism against Black people for generations. There are not longer any laws on the books that allow for it, the government never addressed that history, and continues to protect racists and not provide the education and re-education to rid ourselves of racism. We had a "system that institutionally categorized and segregated people based on skin color" for a few hundred years. The reaction to that, the only way to fix that, is to admit it, find its causes, find how its still hurting this society, and one tool to do that is to address the concerns of those who historically and still today face discrimination, prejudice, violence, and adversity by allowing them to discuss their experience in the forums that are most comfortable to them. With the elimination of explicit institutional racist laws one cannot simply say "OK! We are all equal now! We all have the same opportunities, and we are all the same! We don't see color, and therefore we do not need to talk about it anymore! And if s few feel like we need to talk about race it cannot be on the terms of those who where discriminated against, and whose ancestors were held in slavery!" If you really want an answer to your "biracial" dilemma first your term is incorrect. A person who is "1/8 black" would not be "biracial" because "biracial" means of two races. Someone who is black knows they are black because society treats them as black, so... that kid or person will know it, and its mostly based on how they look.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 5:49 PM

Robert, Give me one example in which the government purposely excluded white people from a forum and it hurt said white people. Give me an example of the "government making race based distinction" that has hurt white people.

Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 4:00 PM

But Dylan, this isn't like your "N" word example. I understand that it's socially acceptable for blacks to say the "N" word and not whites, just as it's acceptable for Chinese to say the "C" word and not one else. (though I've heard black students say the "C" word to Chinese outside OPRF, is that acceptable to you?). The difference here is that this segregation has be institutionalized, and that's a big difference. There's a difference between a group of black teens getting together and talking about issues by themselves, and a school administrator making it policy that non blacks be turned away. As for your question to "white folk", I'm not white, so I can't answer for them, but what you fail to see is that it's not about insisting to attend as much as it's about having an institution dictate who can attend based on race. Well you may not think it's important to consider whether a biracial kid can or cannot attend (and you didn't really answer the question), but that's the problem, because you're supporting a system that institutionally categorizes and segregated people based on skin color, so the logic would be that you would need to define who fits into those categories. It's obviously easy to point at a black kid, or even someone who is 1/2 black that looks it, but a kid that doesn't look black, but has a small amount of black in him can easily be disregarded as non black. Why is this consideration important? Because it challenges the notion of segregation based on racial categorization. Like I said, what if you're parent is half black, but does not outwardly appear so, and him nor his parents are treat as such? Does he get in?

Robert Zeh from River Forest, Illinois  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 12:10 PM

@Dylan, I'm not adamant about attending. I'm adamant about my government not baring people from government sponsored forums based on their skin color. Our history with government making race based distinctions ranges from horrifying at worst to muddling at best. I don't know how to say this any more clearly: it is wrong to bar someone from a government sponsored forum based on their skin color. I don't care how necessary you think it is, because just as hard cases make poor law, necessity is a poor guide for justice.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 11:11 AM

Equal time. EXACTLY.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 11:10 AM

Cormac, As I have previously said, this forum cannot be the end game. You can't just bring together black students, as their experience will never changed if white people aren't challenged to change. There needs to be bringing together of all students at different levels - having peace talking circles - and different tools to promote dialogue. Its not to the same level, but this reminds of those arguments white folks put out there "Why is it okay for black people to use the n-word, but a white person is called a racist when they use it, even if its just reciting a song lyrics." The question is why do you want to say it in the first place? So my question for other white folks is - "Why are you so adamant to want to attend a forum that is designed to be a safe place for black students to talk about their experience being black - you aren't black it doesn't apply to you." Instead go to the forum or discussion that is about sharing,, healing, and understanding. Your question about "where do you draw the line." In my opinion that is not a helpful or important discussion. Someone who is black, knows they are black and society treats them as black. If one of your parents is black, you are black, and have that experience because you will encounter experiences with that parent.

Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 21st, 2015 12:00 AM

Dylan, So what you're saying is institutional segregation is ok as long as you are the victim of systemic racism. Also, biracial people are only seen as black if they look black. Obama looks black. There are biracial kids that have black blood but don't look it. Are they still welcome? What about the kids that is 1/8 black, but doesn't look like it. The kid who has a black great grandparent... Where do you draw the line? It's not so black and white as you make it out to be.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 6:36 PM

David, No one "understands" the constitution. One's understanding of the constitution makes on world view, political view, and yime in history. Our "understanding" of the constitution has changed dramatically since its creation and many times over the years. Hence why you have one court rule that "separate but equal' is constitutional and a later court rule that is is unconstitutional.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 6:32 PM

David, We will disagree. I don't think we would be talking about this here if it was a forum only for students with disabilities. Because white people arent as uncomfortable about ability as they are race. Could someone make an argument to having a forum for white students only to create a safe environment for white students to discuss race? Yes, and there will be backlash as well. The only difference is that white people can easily find comfort because society is created for their comfort. If you are a person of color i doubt there is a day you go without being uncomfortable or facing some racial prejudice, comment, or discrimination. Its about time us white folks face a little discomfort, even if it is for an hour....

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 6:25 PM

Cormac, Easy answer is that Whites do not face systemic and extensive racism in the United States. Fixing racism and the impact of it will not be easy. Of course biracial students are welcone. Biracial students are still seen as black by society. Our President is "biracial" but most definitely black.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 5:20 PM

OPRFHS STUDENT BULLETIN.Here is a link to the actual notice of the event that was given to students: http://www.oprfhs.org/activities/documents/2-25-15-StudentBulletin.pdf Here is a copy of the text in the student bulletin: "Black Lives Matter In conclusion of Black History Month, please join us Friday February 27th during periods 7th and 8th in the Little Theatre as we host our 1st Annual Black Lives Matter forum discussing the impact of civil injustices, profiling and other topics that impact minority students Members of the African American School community will be selling T'shirts during all lunch periods this week for ONLY $5. If you're unable to purchase a t'shirt please show your support of the cause by wearing black and white this Friday. Students wishing to participate in the forum MUST sign up before Thursday in the Student Activity Center" Note that this assembly was scheduled during the instructional day, requiring class release. "Black Lives Matter" is a private political protest movement, which may indeed have fine motives. Students were asked to support "the cause", and dress to show that, at the school's behest. Note that this was to be a continuing event. In Ferguson, there were many non-violent protesters, including whites and others. but whites Hispanics and Asians were to be excluded from this assembly. Only negative items were included in the agenda. Was this meant to promote unity at the high school?

David Gulbransen from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 3:36 PM

John: just because *two* administrators don't understand the Constitution and aren't smart enough to foresee the fallout of their actions doesn't justify it. If anything, it makes me question the administration even more if the Principal *and* the Superintendent failed to see, or cannot see, why this was problematic.

David Gulbransen from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 3:31 PM

Dylan: "If the school hosted a forum only for students with disabilities, there wouldn't be this outcry." First, I am not so sure you are right--if the school *denied* entry to non-disabled students who *wanted* to attend, I think there would be. It's not a question of "reverse racism" (which is a stupid term and does not exist). It's a question of *barring entry* to staff and students who wanted to attend *solely because of their race* which, by definition is racial discrimination. What if the school wanted to host a forum for how students could be more inclusive of minorities--but only made it available to white students, because they wanted to be "open" and "honest" and without "fear" in discussing how they should treat minority students? Yes, the notion of doing such a thing is *patently ridiculous*. Well, so is the notion of excluding *anyone* from a forum based solely on race, religion, or gender.

John Belcaster from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 2:05 PM

Just wanted to clarify some of the factual under-brush as some of these comments lambast "the trusted head of a public institution, [who] should really know better": Superintendent Steven Isoye (the non-African American boss of the principal) was sitting in the room while the "Black Lives Matter" assembly occurred. Let's take a step back from painting Principal Rouse as some sort of rogue administrator.

Bill Ward from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 1:36 PM

It is simply not acceptable for a public forum in America to exclude individuals on the basis of race. Had Mr. Rouse organized a racially exclusionary "affinity circle" in some private setting, I would have no beef with his right to do so. But as the trusted head of a respected public institution, he should really know a little better. The fundamental purpose of our common spaces is to unite us, not divide us. In the immortal words of that great American patriot, Homer Simpson, "DOH!"

Cormac Battle  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 9:15 AM

Dylan, You said that if this were women coming together, this wouldn't be an issue. So, the assumption you're making is that it's just a group of people that need to come together to work on stuff. But, you can guarantee that if the principal created a whites only school forum there would be a huge problem. Imagine if black students were turned away because they were not white. All the "affinity group" excuses in the world out not make an once of difference. The problem here is that this act of segregation was institutionalized by the principal. If the group of black students came together on their own, I doubt we'd be having this discussion. Maybe you could answer my questions below that nobody has answered yet. I have friends with bi-racial kids that are part black. Should they be allow entry? Should you only allow in the one that have more "black" features? Who's going to make that call, whether someone is "black" enough of not? What if the teen looks more Asian or white compared to his or her black part?

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 9:08 AM

Kevin, You stated "Compelling School Interest", implemented in a "Narrowly Tailored" fashion. Does not a school have a compelling interest to address concerns of all students? And one tool to address the concerns of a particular group of students is to create a safe space for them to discuss their feelings and experience? You could be right about the current Constitutionality of it. But what do expect from an extreme conservative and racist court that has on a number of occasions used the 14th Amendment to strike down laws that have only started to address the affects of extreme historical racism, supremacy, and separatism.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2015 1:43 AM

CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES TRUMP. This debate is already over, and that was clear in the comments of Board President John Phelan (and implicitly in the remarks of some of his colleagues. They had obviously been briefed by their lawyers). He said the Special Board Meeting comment period was not a referendum about Principal Rouse , nor his program ideas for the future. It was not about the Board pursuing what it might like to do. It was about adhering to Constitutional standards set by the Supreme Court, for public K-12 schools. The citing by citizens of what goes on at Fenwick (a private institution), or even at a public university (where students are assumed to be less impressionable) does not apply. Phelan described that this requires an "Equal Protection Analysis" under the 14th Amendment.Many of the commentators on this site describe situations that would only require a "Rational Relationship" to a "Legitimate School Interest." Lots of things meet that test. But when racial classifications are involved, there must be a "Compelling School Interest", implemented in a "Narrowly Tailored" fashion. Virtually nothing survives that test. So this is not about "Direct Democracy", where locals determine things. It is not even about "Representative Democracy", where the elected Board determines things. D200 has encountered something that limits its powers: The Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Far from being a minor matter of two white girls being refused admission to an event, this raises broader issues. Many students may say "I don't want to be pigeonholed into some racial category. And I don't want to be part of another one either. I just want to be a student, and an American." When the school says, "OK, opt out", the student says, "I don't want to be part of an institution that is obsessed with race, and makes me the odd person out, and speaks of people with '"racially advanced attitudes'", as determined by the Principal." That will be the death blow.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 11:16 PM

David, So in addressing an issue that only personally affects Black students, you want to force Black students to have to have their frank and open conversations in an environment that they may not be comfortable with? Schools have a duty to ALL students, and therefore need to take actions to address the concerns of ALL students. Black students have issues that White students don't have. Female students have issues that Male students don't have. Those are facts. Do you end with just setting up separate groups and forums for everything? Of course not, but having separate groups (if done intentionally) can be helpful in addressing complex issues like racism. If the school hosted a forum only for students with disabilities, there wouldn't be this outcry. I honestly believe as well that if there was a forum only for females to discuss something that only females encountered, we wouldn't be talking about it on oakpark.com. However, race and discussions of racism make many of us white folks uncomfortable, and therefore when something like this happens people start saying things like "reverse racism". As I just stated in another comment, white student are not adversely impacted by not being able to attend a forum that is intended to create a safe space for black students to discuss their experience of being black in America, in Chicago, at OPRF. But you know who might be adversely affected by the mandate that white students being allowed in that space? Black students.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 11:05 PM

Dean, Are you stating that you believe that a Principal should seek the approval from the School Board to have a forum for students? That sounds like micromanagement. Its the Principal's job to address the concerns, both social and academic, of students. If there was a forum that was divided by sex, this would have not been an issue. The United States has an issue with racism and race relations. It seems that the overwhelming majority of those who are against this forum are white. Why do us White folks feel its appropriate to dictate how Black folks find ways to discuss the issues they face from living in a racist society? "Separate but equal" was harmful because equal opportunity to education was not offered. White people are not harmed when Black people discuss how navigate and feel about racist America.

David Gulbransen from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 11:04 PM

Dylan: I don't want them to feel uncomfortable. But segregation by a *school administrator* is _not_ the answer. I think the intention was great, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It would be a very different thing if black students came together on their own in a private forum; that's not what happened here. Here, a school administrator, charged with care and *leading* our young people chose to segregate them--even if for the best reasons, it's still a wrong-headed approach. I certainly don't have all the answers to solving racial problems in America, but I am very sure that alienating and excluding people based on race is not the way to achieve it. Should Rouse lose his job over this? No, I don't think so. But should the principal of a school be allowed to hold segregated assemblies? No, absolutely not.

Dean Rogers from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 7:15 PM

Nathaniel Rouse organized this assembly as an "affinity group model,"meant to foster a deeper conversation over the theme "Black Lives Matter." My two concerns are these; Who decided the "racial affinity model" was legitimate or appropriate?Was the School Board consulted before this event? I do not believe the Board should be micromanaging the school-they hire a principal to carry out his duties according to their guidelines and principles.But is such an assembly part of his duties?Shouldn't this event have been brought to the Board ahead of time?Surely,there are some limits as to what Principal Rouse can initiate on his own.

Jim Bowman  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 6:12 PM

I might add that he was not black Irish, but of fair skin.

Jim Bowman  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 6:10 PM

HIS stop. Sorry.

Jim Bowman  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 6:09 PM

Who's black? issue reminds me of the Irish-ancestry New Orleans Jesuit in the bad old Jim Crow days who sat in the back of the bus. When asked or told to move to the front, he said he had colored blood. On leaving the bus at this stop, he stopped at the driver's seat on his way out and said one word: "Red."

Cormac Battle from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 5:23 PM

I have friends that are bi-racial, half black, half white, 1/4 black, 3/4 white and 3/4 black, 1/4 Japanese. Would they be allowed to attend?

Benjamin Hill from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 3:28 PM

Folks, it was a segregated assembly. Students and certain administrators were turned away at the door. As I've posted elsewhere, the intentions may have been good, but the execution was awful and unprofessional. You only have to imagine a similar discussion for whites-only. And once you do have those conversations, by ethnicity, identity, race or whatever, what do you do with the results of those conversations? How is this going to help?

Alex Garcia from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 10:46 AM

Conor: So, who qualifies as "black" and would be eligible to attend the assembly? If I have African lineage, but do not outwardly appear black, do I qualify in yours and the principal's view? Who decides?

Bill Ward from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 10:25 AM

The Highway to Hell is paved with good intentions. Bottom line, it is not acceptable for a "public" forum in America to exclude individuals on the basis of race.

Conor Gallogly from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 8:58 AM

Alex, The assembly was not segregation in any meaningful way. It was an hour and a half event to allow black students (and adults) an opportunity to talk about race and racism in a safe space. It didn't harm students or staff of other races. It doesn't prevent OPRF from improving the school for all students. It didn't put up barriers between students. Many of those barriers are already between students (and adults) and the vast majority are not connected to the high school at all.

Conor Gallogly from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2015 8:53 AM

This article understates the overwhelming support of the assembly and principal voiced by students, parents and staff. Speaker after speaker passionately and sometimes movingly shared how the assembly positively affected them or their children. The author quoted one of two speakers who opposed the assembly, making it seem like the audience was divided. It was not.

Alex Garcia from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 18th, 2015 9:24 AM

I'm trying to look at this controversy objectively, but the simple fact of the matter is that what the principal did in this case was segregation based on race. You either try to break down those barriers or you put them up. As a society, we really can't have it both ways, i.e. claiming that others are implementing prejudice while doing it ourselves. No double standards.

Dylan Bellisle  

Posted: March 17th, 2015 8:53 PM

David, You comment as if Rouse has no intention to have later inclusive discussions. There is the ideal, and there is reality. The reality is that many young people of color, and just people of color in general, feel more comfortable talking with others who face similar situations as they do. Why do you want to force them to be uncomfortable, particularly those who have faced racial micro-aggressions, hostility, discrimination and racism? Why do you get to decide how they share their experience with each other? Does there need to be inclusive discussions that bring people of different background to share their thoughts and feelings to promote dialogue , understanding and hopefully healing? Yes. Of course. But to demand that young people of color only have discussions about race if white people can be there? Think about that...

David Gulbransen from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 17th, 2015 4:46 PM

I understand 100% the idea that kids of any minority group need a place to feel safe, secure and open to voice their experiences and concerns--I think trying to achieve that is laudable. What I don't understand is how on earth Rouse could not have foreseen the fallout from this. Really--it makes me question his professionalism and judgment. His best solution to help minority kids is to *segregate them*? He didn't see that comparison coming? Then he says (in another article) that he plans on holding other assemblies for other minority groups. So, they all get "separate but equal" treatment??!? Look, I harbor no illusion that we are in "post racial" America. I understand we have, as a nation and as a community, a long way to go before we've truly addressed racism. I just fail to see how you work towards the goal by dividing off into segregated groups. Instead, we should be working to create an environment where black, white, Latino, trans, purple, or whatever, can come together to have these discussions and have *everyone* feel safe and secure enough to be open. Teaching young minority kids that the only way to be open and honest about their experiences is by segregating themselves from other races is hardly the message I think OPRF should be communicating or nurturing. Perhaps Mr. Rouse can step up to the plate with some ideas that aren't so clearly and instantly divisive and polarizing.

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