QUINCY — Jaiden Harris couldn’t believe the racist words spewing from his white classmate’s mouth on Snapchat one weekend in November.
“Every [n-word] I see,” the student said, in a video filmed two years earlier, “I’ll give a piece of cotton to [expletive] remind them of the days that they were [expletive] getting whipped, getting [expletive] raped, leaving their family just to go [expletive] get a cent a day. ... [N-words] — I just hate them.”
Harris, a 15-year-old Quincy High School freshman, seethed. He already felt disrespected and targeted at school for being Black; now, he feared this student wouldn’t face any consequences. “That video could make other people think that it’s OK to say that,” Harris recalled, “and so it would mess up the whole world.”
And so when Harris next saw the white student in the school hallway, he pushed him in the chest, asking if he thought it was OK to say the n-word. Then Harris punched the other student repeatedly.
Harris’s hallway confrontation — which was filmed by other students and widely circulated in the school community — galvanized many students of color who, despite generally not condoning violence, saw Harris’s action as a measure of rare justice for the hateful language they routinely hear. It also helped spark a wave of student activism against discrimination that has roiled the high school and inspired students in other school districts. Three days after the fight, hundreds of students walked out of their Quincy High School classes in protest of racism, with many hugging Harris as he entered his disciplinary hearing. (He received a two-day suspension; Harris said officials told him the white student, who made the video as a seventh-grader, would not return to the school.)
A week later, 300 students left their classes in Braintree, where students of color voiced similar complaints of unaddressed racism. The Braintree superintendent promised to continue conversations with students.
“It’s an important trend: Students are sending a message to school administrators that you need to focus on this issue of school climate and school culture as much as you focus on the core subjects,” said Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
That bid by students to mobilize and demand action has given many people at Quincy High hope that change might actually happen this time — especially with more parents and educators now attuned to the pernicious effects of systemic racism.
“These issues have always existed — we can’t ignore them now because we have them on tape,” said Quiana Blair, a Black mother of a 10th-grader, who attended Quincy High herself. “I feel hopeful that this can’t continue. If they try to sweep it under the rug like it has been, the parents as well as students of Quincy High will make sure that their voices are heard.”
Quincy is one of many school districts across Greater Boston grappling with hate incidents, with varying responses from schools. In Danvers, the Globe reported last month, officials sought to keep quiet reports of the all-white high school boys’ hockey team’s routine shouting of the n-word in their locker room and punishing students who refused to participate. In Duxbury last spring, an opposing team heard the football team yelling antisemitic play calls including “Auschwitz,” “rabbi,” and “dreidel.” And in Georgetown in September, Black football players from Roxbury Prep High School reported being called the n-word by white Georgetown players and fans.
“These incidents are triggering a new response than they have in the past, but the behaviors coming out definitely aren’t new,” said Max Leete, who is Black and fought for change at Danvers High School before graduating last spring. “It’s amazing that we’ve seen so many students come forward trying to make change, but it all starts with the administrative level.”
It’s unclear whether schools are seeing more discrimination now than in the past or whether it’s more visible due to increased reporting or social media. Bias incidents are often underreported, experts say, due to fear of retaliation and lack of faith in an effective response. In Massachusetts, 82 alleged hate crimes — which typically involve violence or property damage — were reported in educational institutions in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, and accounted for 20 percent of the state’s hate crimes, records show. In 2009, 33 hate crimes in schools and universities were reported.
Schools have wide latitude on how to respond to bias incidents. Schools are legally required to “respond promptly” to incidents and “strive to prevent” discrimination in the first place, but state law requires no specific actions. To guide schools, the governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes this fall released a guide for schools on how to handle incidents along with a $400,000 grant program to help fund districts’ initiatives aimed at addressing bias.
“When schools take a strong stance, they’re able to stop the ripple effect, making sure that students don’t see that conduct as something that is permitted,” said the guide’s coauthor Janice Iwama, an assistant professor of justice and law at American University.
In Quincy, more than a dozen parents and students told the Globe they don’t trust campus administrators to reform the school culture, as the high school has been through racist incidents before without meaningful changes.
Superintendent Kevin Mulvey, who is white, said he and the school’s leaders are committed to improving the climate for all students. Mulvey said the district is hiring outside organizations to help diversify the curriculum and train teachers to be more culturally sensitive. Mulvey said students who engage in discrimination are disciplined, despite perceptions that they’re not.
“I know that people may think that we haven’t been moving on this, but we have been moving on this and of course now we’re going to expand this even more,” Mulvey said. “There are a significant amount of initiatives all geared toward making quick and positive improvements.”
Quincy’s student population is 40 percent Asian American, 40 percent white, 8 percent Black, and 9 percent Latino. Meanwhile, 94 percent of teachers are white.
In 2016, a picture of a white female Quincy High student wearing what appeared to be blackface circulated on social media. Students of color were outraged and wanted to discuss it but felt silenced by their teachers, said Maya Correia, who is Black and graduated in 2017.
The school held two forums: a required one, where, Correia said, a man used puppets and humor to discuss respect in a way she found ineffective, and a separate optional forum for students to speak about their concerns. At that forum, she said, Quincy High Principal Lawrence Taglieri, who is white, did not attend, and most who showed up were students of color while a few white students sat in a corner laughing at them. (Mulvey said the speaker at the required forum was a psychologist and his talk will return this school year.)
Exasperated with what she saw as the school’s limited response to the blackface incident, Correia, then a junior, cofounded the People of Color Student Union to give students who feel marginalized a place to discuss their experiences and push for reforms.
Correia had routinely heard white students use the n-word with each other and Black students. She said her choir teacher insensitively directed the only dark-skinned girl to play African bongos during a performance, despite the girl not knowing how to play. In the cafeteria, Correia saw on her phone a WiFi network named “No [N-words] Allowed” and reported it to Taglieri, who told security. The school didn’t seem to her to make much effort to find the culprit.
Shortly after the student union formed, the backlash started. Correia heard that many students thought it was “the anti-white club.” Two white boys attended a meeting, filmed students without permission, and shared videos on Snapchat mocking them, Correia said. Correia received threatening messages telling her to stop being a part of the group and to leave the school. Students removed the club’s hallway posters.
“Quincy Public Schools has a culture of being racist,” Correia said. “It’s taught in the homes and it’s enabled in the classrooms.”
The group tried to propose a new way of responding to students accused of racism — instead of receiving an in-school suspension, the offenders could attend a meeting with people of color to learn about the impact of their behavior, Correia said. But when the group sought to meet with Taglieri, he didn’t make himself available, according to Correia and another person involved. Taglieri did not respond to a request for comment.
In June 2020, as the country, rocked by the murder of George Floyd, reckoned with institutional racism, students of color began sharing their experiences on an Instagram page, @BlackatQuincyHigh. The posts described a white student asking her Black teammate for permission to say the n-word on TikTok, then after being told not to, saying it anyway. White students were described as touching a Black girl’s hair without permission and calling it “gross and oily.” An Asian student reported being mocked as “ching chong, ding dong.”
Students were fired up. But when they returned to school online during that pandemic fall, they were disappointed. Several students said they never heard administrators acknowledge the racism they had exposed.
Mulvey said the district responded to the Instagram page by training teachers on restorative justice techniques to resolve conflicts and it hired an outside organization to survey parents, students, and teachers to find ways the school could improve its climate. The report, issued in late November, highlighted a culture of pervasive insensitive slights, large and small, contributing to an overall lack of belonging felt by families of color in schools. It recommended the district hire staff of color, train employees, improve translation services, encourage classroom discussions about equity, and collaborate with youth on implementing changes.
But many are finding it difficult to muster hope.
“We’ve been on this same Ferris wheel, we’re just going back around again,” said James Ikeda, a history teacher of Japanese American descent who was the faculty adviser for the People of Color Student Union. “It is painful to see generations of students experience the cycle that you’ve seen play out before.”
To Ikeda, these problems will continue until students have real power in school policymaking.
Zybria Barber, 18, a Black senior, has hope. Barber saw Harris’s fight in the hallway and felt relief watching a white student finally be punished for using the n-word. Barber decided to organize the student walkout after teachers grabbed the microphone from a friend at a student forum after the fight.
“We felt like a lot of these students and staff didn’t care about what we had to say,” Barber said. But two days later, Barber was gratified to see hundreds of students walk out at 9:25 a.m., holding signs and chanting. Students finally had a voice — and some power.
“After that, the school started listening to us,” Barber said. “They’re working with us to help change what’s going on. It might not change by the time I graduate, but it should change within a few years.”
On Nov. 19, Mulvey told families the district was committed to taking some of the key actions that students and parents had requested. But skepticism remains. Harris, the freshman who punched his classmate who made the racist video, said he wants to believe officials when they vow to listen to students, but he hasn’t seen that yet. Two weeks before the fight, Harris complained about his teacher having the class read “Of Mice and Men” out loud and repeatedly saying the n-word, prompting white students to chuckle and Harris to feel uncomfortable. Afterward, Harris said, he was sent to the library while the class continued reading aloud, making him feel alienated.
“I would just like for the students to have a voice and to be heard,” he said.
Harris and his mother, Tayla Mayo, said they planned to keep advocating for action. After all, Harris’s two younger siblings will likely attend the school soon.
“I believe the school can change if they want to, but it’ll take a lot of pushing,” Mayo said. “We cannot afford to give up.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.