Hundreds of Needham High School students walked out of classes Friday to protest recent incidents of racist and anti-gay graffiti being scrawled on boys’ bathrooms, and the principal called the demonstration “a very powerful opportunity for students to learn from each other.”
Principal Aaron Sicotte said in a phone interview that approximately 300 students participated in the hourlong walkout, which he described as “very respectful, very orderly, [and] very nicely handled.”
He said some participants spoke about their experiences as students of color or members of the LGBT community, including some who described instances of harassment at school.
While administrators can’t condone students missing classes, Sicotte said, the school has the “utmost respect” for those who spoke out Friday.
“I think they understand that they have a very willing partner in the administrative team here,” Sicotte said.
Asked whether any students would be punished for organizing or joining the walkout, he said “I’m not looking to try to squelch student voices.”
In two separate messages to parents and students this week, Sicotte had written that racial and anti-gay slurs were discovered in school bathrooms, decrying the graffiti as “repulsive” and “hate speech.”
He said Friday that none of the vandals have been identified, but an investigation is ongoing.
Asked if students have in the past reported instances of harassment based on race or orientation, Sicotte answered in the affirmative but said he didn’t have the specific number of cases available. He also said students can face a range of sanctions for such behavior including suspension.
Sicotte is legally barred from expelling students for such conduct, he said.
The principal declined to say whether any cases have been reported to law enforcement, but he stressed that every harassment report is taken “very seriously” and prompts “a thorough investigation.”
In addition, he said the graffiti incidents were immediately reported to the school resource officer.
“We are continually working to make sure [the school] is a welcoming, respectful, safe environment,” he said.
In Thursday’s message to parents and students, Sicotte said the school’s “LGBTQ staff and students routinely face homophobia and a lack of the comfort and acceptance that heterosexuals feel in our building. Our Jewish and Muslim students are also often targeted. This unfortunate list continues through every minority group at Needham High School.”
He said LGBT students face similar challenges at schools nationwide, and he called the anti-gay graffiti “hate speech,” writing that no “group should feel unwelcome or unsafe here.”
In his prior note two days earlier, Sicotte had called the racist graffiti “unacceptable,” writing, “When racist slurs are written on our walls, we are not a safe place.”