The realities of race in Yellow Springs schools
- Published: June 29, 2017
Racially insensitive or offensive remarks. Racial jokes. Words and actions that express disregard or disrespect for people of diverse races, ethnicities and religions. Social divisions that fall along racial lines.
These are all a reality at Yellow Springs schools, according to some local students of color and their adult allies who have chosen to speak publicly about their concerns in recent months.
Comments and jokes by white students that subtly or blatantly demean kids of color are nothing new in local schools, they say. According to Yellow Springs High School rising senior Amani Wagner, who has attended Yellow Springs schools since pre-school, racial comments, and a sense of racial division and difference, begin in about sixth grade and continue through middle and high school.
Some local kids of color have been discussing these issues for several years as part of Young People of Color, or YPOC, a community group that includes students, teachers, parents and other community members. But those discussions have become more urgent, and more public, this year in the wake of the politically polarizing national election, and a painful revelation in January about a racial incident at the high school.
Prompted in part by that revelation, several YPOC students gave two public presentations this spring about their experiences in the local schools. Seeking to convey and amplify student concerns, a YPOC adult subcommittee initiated discussions with school leaders on a range of race-related issues in the schools. A special YPOC meeting on these issues will be held Monday, June 26, at 5 p.m. at First Baptist Church, with District Superintendent Mario Basora and YSHS Principal Tim Krier as invited speakers. All villagers are welcome to attend.
In response to these public expressions of concern, the News is taking a closer look at the racial atmosphere in local schools, as experienced and characterized by some students of color. We also explore factors that may be contributing to this atmosphere, including the impact of national politics and long-term demographic shifts in Yellow Springs. And we describe steps that the schools are taking to address and improve racial dynamics that at times hurt and alienate kids of color in Yellow Springs.
‘This time it got heard’
Yellow Springs’ annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day community celebration is a joyous, uplifting event that regularly attracts 200 or more villagers. This year, after years of being held in overflow conditions at the Central Chapel A.M.E. Church, the event was moved to Antioch College’s Foundry Theater.
The local schools hold an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Creative Writing Contest for students, and contest winners at different grade levels read their essays aloud at the event. This year, one of the winning essays brought to light a painful racial incident that had taken place at school earlier in the school year. Written by YSHS then-freshman Alexis Longshaw, the essay described the impact of a racial comment, disparaging to the humanity of African Americans, made by one of Longshaw’s peers during a class.
According to Longshaw in the essay, the student, referring to some kind of animal, said, “They’re just like black people. They look human, but they’re not.”
Longshaw described her immediate reaction this way: “In that moment, I had no idea what to say, think or do. I cannot put into words how I felt in that moment.”
Months later, the emotion was still so raw that Longshaw, who in the essay identifies herself as half African-American, was unable to read the whole piece. Former McKinney Middle School teacher Aurelia Blake stepped in to finish. The essay was also subsequently published in the News.
In a recent interview, Principal Krier said he was unaware of the incident prior to the public reading. “It was powerful and awful,” he said of the essay’s impact. One component of his reaction was dismay at learning of the painful incident, in public, months after it had occurred.
“How did I not know about it? It was embarrassing and disappointing,” he said.
While many in the audience reacted with shock and distress, student Amani Wagner said recently that she was not surprised by the incident.
“It happens all the time,” she said. “This time it got heard.”
‘Why would they say that?’
According to three students of color interviewed recently by the News, comments and jokes by students that demean other students based on race, ethnicity and religion are not uncommon at the school. Students gave specific examples from their own experience.
Wagner, a lifeguard at Gaunt Park Pool, said white peers have joked that she can’t work at the pool because “black people don’t know how to swim.” She knows these students and they know her, she said, wondering aloud, “Why would they say that?”
Once she brought banana pudding to school for an event. Some students told her, “We know you like bananas. Of course you’d bring banana pudding.” The students deflected it as “just a joke,” and Wagner suspected they said it mainly to see her reaction. Jokes are a particular problem, she and other students said, because students who tell the jokes get defensive if questioned, and those who “call them out” feel dismissed or get branded as angry or too sensitive.
Jasmine Davidson, a YSHS rising senior, said her most upsetting personal experiences around race at school relate to her hair. She likes to wear it in different styles, and her hair gets touched a lot by her white peers. Sometimes they ask to touch her hair, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s annoying and troubling, she said.
“Everybody feels the need to touch my hair,” Davidson said.
The issue is hard to address because some students don’t stop touching her hair when she asks them to, instead making a game out of trying to touch it. Other students get defensive, while still others seem to be asking out of genuine curiosity, and it’s difficult for Davidson to know how to respond.
“Sometimes I don’t do anything, just because that’s easiest,” she said.
Another student, 2017 YSHS graduate Olivia Brintlinger-Conn, wrote in an email that she vividly remembers an incident a few years ago in which a peer turned around and “pulled back the corners of their eyes to make them squinty” every time the teacher referred to China or the Chinese during a lesson on Chinese history. Some students thought it was funny, but Brintlinger-Conn, who is Asian American, found it “hard to understand why someone I thought was my friend would do that.”
Wagner said she’s witnessed a range of other incidents, citing instances where Jewish students’ yarmulkes were “yanked off,” and remarks this year about a Mexican exchange student, including the comment that he should “go back to Mexico.”
Incidents like these create an environment in which some students feel marginalized in their own school, former YSHS Principal John Gudgel said.
Principal Krier acknowledged that middle and high school students in Yellow Springs sometimes express racism, misogyny and homophobia. Mean remarks and bullying behaviors happen at school and on social media, and interactions can at times “turn prejudicial,” he said. But the atmosphere in the school, among students and teachers alike, is basically caring and supportive, he added.
“In no way is this a toxic place,” Krier said.
‘Jekyll and Hyde’ year
While students insisted that this year was not unique in terms of racial tensions and atmosphere, Krier said he believes that the year was unusual in some respects. He calls it the “Jekyll and Hyde” year, marked by many highs and lows. Among the lows were an increase in disciplinary referrals, as well as referrals to children’s services and mental health services. All of these, in his view, are indicators of greater stress, which he connects at least in part to the presidential election.
“There were kids that were more engaged, kids that were more stressed out and kids that were more intolerant” as a result of the election, he said.
Administrators at other area schools saw similar trends this year, he added.
Wagner characterized the election season as a period of “chaos” for YSHS students, with lots of fights over politics. “It was a free-for-all. Everyone was on edge,” she said. But students actually “mellowed out” about politics after the election was over, she added.
Gudgel said he believes that local students are responding to more than presidential politics. Kids of color at the high school have come of age at a time when police shootings of African Americans have dominated the media, and hit close to home, as in the case of the police shooting of John Crawford in Beavercreek, he pointed out.
“Young people of color are surrounded by these incidents. It has an impact on their processing. They’re thinking, ‘Where do I stand in this so-called diverse world?’” Gudgel reflected.
Students bring that frame of concern to the incidents that touch their everyday lives, and perhaps feel even more marginalized and troubled as a result, he added.
It is not clear whether there was a measurable uptick in racial incidents this year. Krier said he believes there likely was an increase in incidents, as well as an increase in notice by kids. Local students are becoming more aware of issues such as “everyday bias,” he said, partly because they’ve explored these topics in school in connection with national police shootings and the New Year’s Eve policing incident in Yellow Springs.
But there may be even deeper reasons why students of color sometimes feel isolated and marginalized within Yellow Springs schools. The village has become markedly less diverse over the past 40 years, and the numbers of African Americans specifically have dropped from about a quarter of the local population in 1970 to just under 12 percent today, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Local teacher Jaime Adoff has lived in Yellow Springs for much of his life, and he attended YSHS in the 1980s, a time he remembers fondly as having a robust and active population of African-American students. But when he began teaching language arts at McKinney Middle this year, he was struck by the relative lack of diversity in his classroom.
“Walking into the classroom really changed my perspective as a biracial man who grew up here,” he said, explaining that the village’s declining diversity was newly apparent to him as a teacher.
Part of what’s lost is a sense of the village’s rich history, in which African Americans played a vital part in shaping and leading important Yellow Springs institutions.
“That’s the disconnect I see,” he said.
He speculated that some students of color, particularly open enrollment students entering Yellow Springs schools for the first time, are taken aback or confused by the racial makeup in a school district and town with a reputation for diversity and inclusion.
“Students of color may be saying, ‘Okay, whoa, there aren’t as many people who look like me as I thought,” Adoff said.
Wagner confirmed that some of her peers have this reaction, particularly African Americans who don’t live in the village. “Our school is predominantly white, and this is uncomfortably overpowering for some kids,” she observed.
In fact, just under 11 percent of students at the middle and high school combined identify as black or African American, while an additional 17 percent identify as multiracial, according to figures from the most recent school year. Overall, 31 percent of students at the middle and high school identify as students of color, based on self-selecting “non-white.”
But the high school is notably less diverse than the middle school, with 13 percent of students at YSHS identifying as multiracial, and 26 percent identifying as students of color.
And Yellow Springs students are considerably less diverse than their open enrollment peers, with under 5 percent of local residents at YSHS identifying as African American, and under 9 percent identifying as multiracial. By contrast, over 18 percent of open enrollment students at the high school identify as African American, and over 13 percent identify as multiracial. Open enrollment drives much of the school’s diversity, the figures show.
Yet open enrollment kids, who represent about 30 percent of the middle and high school population overall, “aren’t the problem,” Wagner and other students at a YPOC presentation in May were quick to point out. Rather, students who live in the village are more likely to initiate racial comments and jokes, they said.
Lack of diverse role models
The lack of diversity is most acute among teaching staff at the middle and high schools. While about a quarter of teachers and aides at Mills Lawn School are people of color, only two teachers out of 22 full-time teachers, or 9 percent, are of color at the combined middle and high school, according to Krier. Including those two teachers, there are only four adults of color in a building that employs around 30 adults.
“The teaching staff does not adequately reflect the student population,” Krier acknowledged, adding that the current figures are about the same as when he started in the district in 2010.
It’s a longstanding problem, according to Gudgel, who said that during his tenure as YSHS principal he struggled to recruit more teachers of color.
In response to questions about teacher diversity and recruitment efforts in local schools, Superintendent Mario Basora wrote in an email this week that the district has reached out to education schools in Dayton, “specifically asking to engage and connect with their candidates of color.” And the district has a “special partnership” with Central State University, he added, which includes placing student teachers from Central State in Yellow Springs schools. This year, for example, there were three Central State student teachers at Mills Lawn.
Yet these and other efforts “have yielded very few candidates applying for positions in our schools to date,” Basora wrote.
The district plans to work closely with YPOC and the 365 Project to recruit more applicants of color, he added.
The small number of teachers of color in local schools has negative consequences for all students, but particularly kids of color, according to YPOC member Basim Blunt, the father of a local student. Young African Americans have few role models and few adults to turn to when they experience problems around race in school, he said.
“What’s different in our schools now is that for kids of color there aren’t adults that look like them,” he said.
Wagner said African-American students need “an ear to talk into,” especially around racial matters. “It’s hard to [talk to] white teachers when it’s a race issue. You don’t want to make them uncomfortable. And you’re uncomfortable yourself,” she said.
‘A happy village’?
Students see barriers to talking about race in Yellow Springs, and not just at school. The village is a politically progressive community with a history of racial tolerance and inclusion. Yet that very reality can work against Yellow Springs when it comes to recognizing and addressing problems that violate villagers’ broadly shared self-perception, according to students and adults interviewed for this story.
“Because it’s Yellow Springs, we’re supposed to be this accepting, unbiased and unprejudiced place and that’s how we choose to see ourselves so we end up ignoring the fact that that isn’t always the truth,” student Olivia Brintlinger-Conn wrote in a recent email.
Wagner was equally pointed. “We’re a happy village where we all get along. But that’s not the way it is,” she said.
Despite having grown up here, teacher Jaime Adoff said that listening to students of color talk about feeling marginalized in Yellow Springs has been eye-opening.
“I was surprised by the feelings of kids. I had old-fashioned views of what the town was like. But it’s a very, very, very different town,” he observed.
After decades of working in the local schools as a teacher, administrator, guidance counselor and coach, John Gudgel is less surprised by students’ experiences and views. But he continues to be dismayed when events like the one described in the MLK essay reveal the persistent presence of racism in the village.
“As a person of color, you think things are getting better, and then there’s a kick in the gut,” Gudgel said.
According to some students, Yellow Springs’ progressivism has the effect of giving kids, specifically white kids, a free pass in making belittling jokes with racial content. “They can say they didn’t mean it,” Wagner said. And this same progressivism may blind adults to the realities kids of color face.
“Adults don’t see it, so they think it’s not happening. Or they see it, but they don’t want to,” Wagner said.
In line with these observations, students said the most troubling element of their experience with race in Yellow Springs schools is their sense that racial incidents get overlooked or downplayed.
“One of the biggest problems is that people often choose to ignore that racist incidents happen at the high school,” Brintlinger-Conn wrote.
Student Jasmine Davidson agreed. “A bunch of stuff gets dismissed. People of color are the butt of jokes … but people just blow it off,” she said.
Addressing racial issues
However, in the wake of the MLK Jr. Day revelation, school leaders seem to be addressing racial issues with a new focus and energy.
This spring, YSHS revived the United Students Society, or USS, a group dedicated to discussing and addressing issues of bias and prejudice in the schools. USS started in the 1960s and flourished at least through the 1980s, becoming inactive in recent years.
Meeting weekly through the end of the school year, the revived group initiated or supported several events at the school designed to begin to tackle racial bias and prejudice, including a school-wide assembly in which local resident Al Schlueter spoke about his own implicit bias as an older white man.
Wagner and Davidson both said they’re excited about expanding USS’s membership and activities next year. But both also spoke about limitations of a group that’s geared to students who are already sensitive to racial bias and prejudice. Reaching beyond that core to engage other students is challenging.
“How do you get children to do something they don’t think they need to do?” Davidson said.
That dilemma emerged right after the MLK event.
The next day in school, Krier called together all 116 students of color at McKinney and YSHS to discuss what had happened and find out more about their personal experiences with racial comments and bias in Yellow Springs schools.
He did so for two main reasons, he explained recently: to reassure students of color that, as principal, he “had their back,” and to show them that they were “116 strong,” with the power to be “a force for reckoning for good.” At the meeting, he asked students if they’d personally experienced or witnessed racial incidents in their school life. About 60 percent raised their hands.
But some students felt that Krier took the wrong approach in singling out students of color. Wagner said one student told the principal at the gathering that he was talking to the wrong group. “I think you need to be talking to students who aren’t here,” Wagner recalled the student saying. Wagner said she agreed with that perspective.
“We can’t do everything,” she reflected. “We can’t take it and be the people who stop it, especially since we’re just middle and high school students.”
Krier said the gathering was a first step, and subsequent steps, like the school-wide assembly, will involve a broader array of students. But he acknowledged that students of color shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of educating their peers about race.
“How do we lean on students of color without leaning on them?” he said.
School leaders are also taking cues from community group YPOC. This spring, a subcommittee of 14 YPOC adults sent a letter to Krier and Superintendent Basora stating their concerns and recommendations regarding race-related issues in the schools. The adults sought to support students who’ve spoken out at YPOC meetings and other forums this spring, according to subcommittee co-chair Basim Blunt.
“They’re brave,” he said. “Parents and adults have to be brave, too.”
In the letter, the group said it seeks professional training for staff and students on diversity and inclusion; updated protocols for dealing with racial harassment; a more diverse curriculum; and the creation of a staff position in the district for dealing with culturally sensitive issues.
The letter prompted a follow-up meeting, which district and YPOC participants described as positive and productive. Krier and Basora were invited to address the next YPOC meeting, scheduled for Monday, June 26. Blunt said YPOC and 365 Project members plan to serve as a resource for schools around diversity issues, especially to help the district recruit more teachers of color. The group will revisit the letter’s suggestions next January, to see what changes have been made in the district, he added.
For at least some of the students who’ve spoken out, there has already been a small shift. Speaking publicly has been “frightening,” Jasmine Davidson acknowledged.
“But it’s been like hope; there’s an optimistic feeling. People do care in the town and they want to be informed about this stuff,” she said.