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BLSU Walkout Underscores Continuing Need for Honest Discussion of Race at BC High

An Eagle Investigative Report Part I of III

Nick Fahy '18, Managing Editor

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They sat on six folding chairs that creaked when they leaned back and hissed when they bent forward, elbows on their knees, letting their words fall heavy on their assembled audience. They sat shoulder to shoulder, their unity of purpose echoed by the setup. And when they spoke, the rest of the theater fell still.

The six students leading the April 12 Black-Latino Student Union (BLSU) walkout convening in Bulger Performing Arts Center struck a common chord of frustration and discontent with what they see as oftentimes slow and halting progress of race relations at the school. The six were united in their message and in their aggravation, perhaps best voiced by Luc Benjamin ’17: “If we have everyone standing with us, none of this would happen.”

The walkout was exceptional for its candor, the depth of emotion on display, and for the very real issues it underscored. It comes in the context of the school’s declared year of attention to race issues, and a number of faculty, administration, and student-driven efforts to make the school more welcoming to students of color. The six student speakers including, Tchorsky Eugene ‘17, Jason Lopes ‘17, Trevor Barrant ‘17, Carl Pierre ’17, Luc Benjamin ‘17, and Franck Yhomby ‘20, spoke to an audience estimated at one hundred students and faculty, including BC High Principal Stephen P. Hughes, Vice Principal of Student Affairs Hollis Brooks, Academic Vice Principal Charles Drane, Vice Principal for Ignatian Mission and Identity Michael McGonagle, Dean of Students Nelson Miranda, and Director of Equity and Inclusion Ruth Evee.

In the coming weeks, the BC High Eagle will provide an in-depth look, in three parts, at the conditions that led to the BLSU’s walkout, the sentiments expressed at the walkout, and the effect the walkout has and will have on the school. The Eagle’s reporting will be based on interviews with BLSU students and administration officials, the school’s self-reported efforts to improve race relations, surveys of the school community on the subject, and school demographics. In this, the first of those three parts, the Eagle will both analyze the factors that led to the BLSU’s frustrations and what these concerns say about the BC High community.

The immediate cause of the April 12 walkout was an incident of harassment within the freshman class that took place over social media. Earlier this year, several white members of the freshman class used racial slurs to target an African-American classmate through an online chat room. Though other members of the freshman class were witnesses to the harassment, not until several months later was it brought to the attention of the school administration.

The students who used the racial slurs received consequences ranging from an Accountability Board to “contracts” with the school. The walkout speakers expressed frustration that the freshman who had been targeted had not been asked to address the Accountability Board of one of his offenders and to offer his version of events. “[The student] was never asked to plead his case,” said Benjamin. Benjamin, in his role with the BLSU, had recommended to the school that the offender be allowed to return to the school. He wanted to the school to use the incident as a “teaching moment,” but he nonetheless wishes the targeted student had been allowed to speak before the Accountability Board.

In the aftermath of the incident, the school administration planned an assembly for the entire freshman class, set for Tuesday, April 11. Principal Hughes spoke, calling the use of racial slurs and the failure to call them out “cowardice.” As part of the effort to address the incident, the school administration initially asked Benjamin to deliver his own speech at the assembly. The BLSU saw this an opportunity to express its members’ frustrations about how the incident demonstrated larger race issues at the school. However, Principal Hughes cancelled the speech the morning of, citing concern for Benjamin.

“The more I thought about it, the more I became concerned about it. When I [reprimand a class, as he did on April 11] it’s not always greeted with enthusiasm, their first response is often their own frustration,” said Hughes later. He worried that Benjamin would be made the target of that frustration. He acknowledged, however, that Benjamin was not involved in the discussions leading up to his speech’s cancellation, so the last-minute news came as a surprise to him.

The Eagle obtained a copy of the would-be speech from Benjamin. It drew from Benjamin’s own experience as a student of color, and called on the freshman class to learn from its members’ mistakes. “I was a young boy just like you guys. I made mistakes just like every single one of you. It is about growing up and realizing where you faulted and making amends. Someone once told me that the only real mistake is the one you do not learn from. We must learn from the mistake that was made a couple weeks ago. We all must learn from it.”

BLSU moderator, Arrupe Adjustment Counselor, and Social Studies teacher Jiar Ahmed defended Principal Hughes’s decision to cancel Benjamin’s speech. “Luc [Benjamin] should’ve never been asked to give that speech,” he said. He contends that it should not be up to any individual student to categorically address race relations at the school. “[Students of color] are always the arbiter of everything black,” and he noted that the responsibility for creating a culture where black students feel comfortable everywhere in the school falls on the administration and the entire school community, not just black students.

In the aftermath of the incident in the freshman class, students’ frustration at what Trevor Barrant referred to as a “lack of transparency” in the administration’s resolution of the incident, and the BLSU’s inability to address it through Benjamin’s speech, several members of the BLSU met with Mr. Ahmed and Guidance Counselor and BLSU moderator Bryce Scottron on Tuesday, April 11. Leaving the meeting, several students talked with Mr. Ahmed about meeting directly with the administration to talk about the incident.

Said Ahmed, “The students were frustrated that they’ve been talking to administration for three to four years and nothing was changing … I wanted to demonstrate how they had a voice.” When the talk turned to a formal walkout the following day, said Ahmed, “We organized the whole thing in twenty-four hours.” Benjamin invited Principal Hughes in an email sent Tuesday night.

According to Trevor Barrant, “[The plan for the walkout was to have] six to eight of us meeting with administration, and then we decided we were going to get as many people there as possible … to hear what we had to say.” Over the course of that day and the next, the walkout swelled in size from fitting comfortably in the confines of the Hyde Center, to one filling the Great Books Room—which both seat fifteen to twenty people—to an assembly of nearly a hundred students and faculty gathered in Bulger Auditorium second period on Wednesday, April 12.

The students began by addressing the specific incident in the freshman class. “We failed [the targeted student]. We failed kids like [him]. He will never forget what happened to him,” said Benjamin.

“Is that the image you want?” Tchorsky Eugene asked. Eugene went to voice his disappointment that the primary offender in the incident had been allowed to remain at the school.

But the ensuing discussion between the six of them unearthed larger problems of race within the school community. “In my entire BC High career, I’ve read two assigned books by black authors,” said Barrant, “We need to do way more than have speakers speak to us.”

Franck Yhomby ’20 voiced his disappointment at the lack of diversity within his class. “There’s [about] thirteen black kids in my grade right now.” Barrant went further. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be representing at BC High.” He elaborated in an interview. “We say one thing but the reality is completely different.”

The student speakers noted on a number of occasions that as African-Americans, they were often expected to speak for or represent their entire ethnicity in the classroom. “We came to this school to learn. But we’ve had to take on another role [standing up for other African-American students] because of what we’ve let sit around for way too long,” said Benjamin. This could be a consequence of the school’s comparative lack of diversity. African-Americans students, at a school that is 79.81% white, represent just 5.99% of the total student body. Thus, an African-American student will frequently be the only student of color in his class. This in a city where the African-American population totals 25.3%. Mr. Ahmed noted that while the overall proportion of non-white students has increased in recent years, the proportion of black students has remained stagnant “since the 1990s.”

The walkout culminated in the presentation of a list of demands to the school administration. In the demands, the students sought an increase in the proportion of African-American students at the school from 5.99% to 13% of the total student body, and an 8% increase in the number of African-American faculty by September 2019.

Further, the demands enjoined BC High to be better equipped to handle the mental health issues of African-American students, to invite BLSU members to one Board of Trustees Meeting every year, and to have programs in place to help inner-city and public school students adjust to the rigorous academic standard of BC High. They called on the school to change its curriculum to better reflect and discuss the African-American experience.

Principal Hughes spoke after the student speakers had listed their grievances and presented their demands. He thanked the student speakers for the honesty and candor they showed, and apologized for the struggles in their experiences as African-American students at the school. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know that may be meaningless to you, but I am.” Later on, reflecting on what he had heard, he expanded on this. “It was painful. It was hard to hear that [racial intolerance] happens here with frequency. We know we’re not immune… As principal, I feel like – I wish I had done more earlier.”

Later on April 12, Director of Equity and Inclusion Ruth Evee hosted a second, smaller gathering for students of color only. Barrant, who attended the second meeting, noted that compared to the walkout, “The tone was just a little different because of the audience … It was more of a kind of community thing where it’s like alright, we’ve all been experiencing the same things, we’re just going to talk about them and try to figure out how to work through them as a community.”

Josiah Texeira, a junior and 2017-18 BLSU leader, also attended that meeting, and estimated its attendance at sixty students and faculty. He said that the black faculty who attended asked the attending students not to use the n-word on campus, citing that African-American students’ use of the word could be misconstrued by younger white students as license to use the n-word themselves.

On Friday, April 27, Principal Hughes met with Director of Equity and Inclusion Ruth Evee and representatives of the BLSU to discuss the demands. The outcome of that meeting and any modification of the demands will be discussed in a future update. Principal Hughes indicated in an interview that he agreed with a lot of the concerns the demands articulated, and that any changes he might make would likely involve expanding their scope. “These are good goals for us,” he said. “Having an African-American percentage of thirteen percent [of the student body] I think is a worthwhile goal.”

Benjamin, who planned to attend the meeting with Mr. Hughes, felt “optimistic” that it would lead to lasting changes in the school’s culture, while Barrant expressed more qualified hope. “I expect to hear difference, but again, actions and words haven’t always lined up.”

What was made clear at the walkout was that the school has a long way to go to honestly address race issues on campus. Students’ complaints of frequent, often unintentional racial microaggressions, lack of representation in the curriculum or on the faculty [“Why is there no one teaching me who looks like me?” asked Eugene], and a lack of diversity within the student body were not caused by a single incident of harassment among students; they’re problems that existed well beforehand and problems that continue to exist on the school campus.

In the next installment of the BC High Eagle’s series on race, the Eagle will look at current efforts by the school to address race issues on campus: what has helped, was has not helped, and what’s been missing.

Malcolm Herbert ’18 contributed reporting to this article.

 

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BLSU Walkout Underscores Continuing Need for Honest Discussion of Race at BC High