ChiArts Students Demand Anti-Racist Policies Following Incident

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Aisha June gives a rousing speech about Black Lives Matter to a group of students who gathered for a school-wide sit-in. This photo was taken by an anonymous student at The Chicago High School for the Arts and shared with The Double Space.
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Teina Davis displays a hand-made sign during the sit-in.

by Alex Huizar

The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) prides itself on diversity and inclusion. In its mission statement, ChiArts states that it aims to “develop the next generation of diverse, artistically promising scholar-artists.” But in the few weeks before winter break, the school was affected by an incident that brought race issues to the forefront of a school-wide conversation.

In an email to the student body and their parents sent out December 7, Principal Mike Wang wrote, “The ChiArts community was deeply impacted by a teacher’s statement that was racist towards black students in the class while addressing exam results.” The email opened by saying that student self-worth and safety are the primary concern of the faculty at ChiArts.

According to numerous reports, the teacher made a racist statement towards black students in the class while addressing exam results. The teacher reported themselves after realizing their error, and advised students to talk to other faculty members about the incident. By December 10, the teacher had been placed on administrative leave.

Because there is an ongoing internal investigation into the incident, The Double Space is unable to disclose the identity of the teacher. We are also unable to speak individually with the teacher in question about intentions behind the statement.

However, The Double Space does have access to student voices, and to the steps that have been taken by the faculty and student body since December 4.

Many students requested a mandatory assembly addressing race issues at ChiArts. Principal Wang encouraged students to discuss race-related issues, but said he was unable to offer a mandatory school-wide assembly. Instead, Wang offered an optional peer circle on December 8, from 1 to 2 p.m., during the lunch hour.

Teiana Davis, Malinda Caston, Elishama Carroll, Subira Mitchell, Evan Simpson, Henry Schellinger, Vivian Jones, Aisha June, Gabby Smith, La’Tia Owens, Kyle pullman, and Lily Potter — a group of senior students — came up with a list of demands and organized a sit-in on December 11 at 10:25 a.m.

While I cannot condone the interruption to instructional time, I want to be sure that we support our students in their call for action against racism,” principal Wang wrote in an email. He also encouraged teachers to join students in wearing black in solidarity against racism.

On Monday, ChiArts Seniors also put up signs around the school stating, “The n-word is not to be used by anyone who is not black.” The class also took to social media, creating the hashtag #AddressTheIssue to call on the student body and faculty at ChiArts to talk about what many students feel have been long-unaddressed racist sentiments school-wide.

On Monday, students and teachers gathered around the office on the first floor to hear June, Owens, Caston, Carroll, Bates, Simpson, Davis, and Moore speak on behalf of the ChiArts students.

The student group also issued a list of the following demands for the school administration:

1) Proper reprimandation and penalization for actions involving racial prejudice according to level of offense for both staff and students.

2) Mandatory assemblies for both academic and conservatory staff as well as students regarding the importance of racial sensitivity and proper language  to be used in a professional and racially diverse setting. Each assembly must be held on every fourth month with a total of three a year.

3) Further introduction of ethnic faculty to mimic the level of complex diversity in our school

4) Proper notification of all events regarding social issues in our school’s community for students,staff, and parents with a description and explanation all held within a time maximum of 48 hours.

5) Power to further develop this lost of demands never be taken away from the students and faculty at ChiArts in the betterment of our school community.

6) Form of anonymous communication held for to the ChiArts staff and student body who feel at risk,but need to question or receive further assistance if they feel an action of racial prejudice has taken place against them or another individual.

Wang told the Double Space that the administration has been proactive all year about promoting compassionate, anti-racist practices among its faculty. The administration has partnered with CrossRoads Antiracism Organizing and Training (CROAR) — an organization that helps institutions recognize systematic oppression and white privilege — to provide professional development for teachers, faculty, and staff.

CROAR believes that punishing one person over an incident like the one that took place on December 4 does not address the deep roots of institutionalized racism.

“Their viewpoint is that if you choose to throw someone away you’re perpetuating white supremacists practices,” Wang said.

CROAR led a workshop at ChiArts on October 20, 2017; it was mandatory for ChiArts staff. Wang said that almost all of the academic staff went. Several ChiArts teachers have also attended optional all-day workshops hosted by CROAR off-site.

“Every person in the United States has racial bias. The society in which we grew up, the laws —  a lot of  these things were created by white people to keep power. We are changing that,” said English teacher Andrew Van Herik.

Many students, however, are still unsatisfied with the steps ChiArts has taken.

“ChiArts will not tolerate this. We are safe space free from racism, prejudice, sexism, homophobia,” said senior Nathaniel Turner. Turner added, however, that he is still optimistic.

Wang, Executive Director Jose Ochoa, and CROAR hosted a community forum on Monday, December 18 to talk about the recent events concerning racism at ChiArts. In an email following the forum, Wang wrote, “After a review of the incident with our legal counsel, we have determined that at this time, it is in the best interest of students for this teacher to return to the classroom after winter break under administrative oversight and professional development.”

There have also been reports of students making racist remarks.

Caston said she had been proactive with her peers. When recounting an incident with a specific student who got into a fight over the n-word, Caston said, “This is a safe space for everybody, our job is to deescalate the situation. We want to resolve it. We want both of you to walk out peaceful; to have a understanding of each other.”

“ChiArts has done enough to show that to its students by going so far as suspending the administrator who was responsible of one of the race related incidents and also agreeing with the terms to prevent racial tensions and incidents from ever happening again,” Armani Colon, a musical theater student, said. “I hope that in future years ChiArts can use this experience or revolution of our school as a stepping stone.”

Devyn Berkowitz wasn’t initially pleased with the way ChiArts handled the incident. Berkowitz wrote in an email, “The way that the staff handled this situation in the beginning was not enough to show their compassion and perseverance to make ChiArts, (an arts high school with lots of diversity), a safe place for kids of color (as well as other ethnicities/races), which surely made lots of people, including myself very upset.”

Now, though, Berkowitz thinks that the school has stepped up. “Recently, I think the staff at school have been diligently working hard to keep our school as much of a safe zone as possible and make every student, no matter what race, feel connected.”

Monee Bridge, a sophomore, told the Double-Space that she hopes nothing like this will happen again.

“I know our school is better than this, and we should encourage more students for example like our school protest to speak up when something is unexpectable,” Bridge said.

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