A white student at East Boston High School told a story about a history teacher who said white privilege doesn’t exist.
A Boston Latin Academy freshman who is biracial talked about a white student who reacted to the hashtag used for stories about racism at the prestigious Boston Latin School by threatening to become a Nazi.
Those stories were among the experiences shared Saturday in the basement of Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester, where about 100 students, parents, teachers, ministers, and community leaders discussed the racial climate in Boston public schools and ways to improve it.
“It’s been the elephant in the room and nobody wants to talk about it, but yet it impacts every single thing that we do,” said Barbara Fields, a former BPS equity officer. “I would challenge anyone in this room to come up with an issue that we’re dealing with and show how race has nothing to do with it.”
Complaints of racism and segregation have a long history in Boston’s public school system, which was ordered by a judge to desegregate through a busing system in 1974.
The latest discussion about racism in the schools was brought to the fore anew on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when two Latin School seniors, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, posted a video to YouTube in which they denounced the racial climate at the exam school. They complained that some classmates used racial slurs inside the school and on social media, but did not face discipline.
Both participated in Saturday’s gathering, called a Town Hall Action Meeting.
Their video and social media campaign prompted school department officials to launch an investigation in which they found administrators properly handled six race-based incidents reported over a 16-month period but mishandled a seventh.
Latin School headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta later apologized for not responding more quickly to racial tensions, but the local branch of the NAACP and US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz both launched investigations of racism at the school.
The gathering in the church basement Saturday was among a series of events organized by community leaders since Noel and Webster-Cazeau posted their video.
The assembly also observed a moment of silence in honor of Raekwon Brown, a 17-year-old junior gunned down Wednesday outside Jeremiah E. Burke High School.
“We need to get the activists unified so that we could come up with a single set of strategies and recommendations in order to help them change the Boston public school system,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Churchcq in Dorchester.
The meeting included a brainstorming session where people planned ways to increase diversity among students in exam schools, expand the ranks of black teachers and administrators, and create more opportunities for minority children.
Breanna Binda, 18, a senior at East Boston High School, said she participated in a group that proposed having students serve suspensions in school instead of at home and suggested a hearing system be established for such disciplinary measures.
Another group recommended the school department conduct assessments of the racial climate in city schools and develop a bill of rights for families. The same group also urged the creation of an independent support group for minority teachers, said Nia K. Evans, who leads committees on economic development, and labor and industry for the Boston NAACP.
A follow-up meeting is planned for June 29.
Michael Curry, president of the local NAACP, encouraged the crowd to transform their plans into action and get others involved.
“It’s great to get people in a room, but this comes down to what you do next,” he said. “If you don’t decide to commit after today, then don’t be surprised if people are here a year from now as if this conversation never happened.”
Noel and Webster-Cazeau, both 18, graduate from Latin School on Monday.
Webster-Cazeau said she is optimistic about plans to educate teachers on issues of race in the school system and the challenges students face outside the classroom, including violence, long commutes to school, and societal pressures.
“People are just really ready to tackle the issue,” she said.
Kendra Gerald, 15, who raised the story about the student who threatened to become a Nazi in response to the hashtag, #Blackatbls, said the meeting convinced her that she is not alone. She said she wants her teachers at Boston Latin Academy to understand the street violence and racism some students encounter.
“We’re going through traumatic experiences and going to a hard school where everyone expects you to be the best kid they’ve ever met and known,” Gerald said. “It’s not easy.”