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At Boston Latin, student voices drive 'reset' on race

Students – who are often unheard – played a major role in driving a federal investigation into racially-charged incidents at the prestigious exam school. It's just one example of high-schoolers pushing more vocally for change.

Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston Latin School, America's oldest public school (est.1635), was deemed in a federal investigation to have mishandled a number of racially charged incidents. The school has agreed to a raft of reforms in a bid to create a more inclusive climate for all students.

When it came to prompting a federal investigation into racial discrimination at America’s oldest public high school, one voice proved pivotal: that of students.

This week, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz released the findings of a nearly half-year investigation into allegations that the selective Boston Latin School had mishandled a number of racially-charged incidents – including failing to notify the parents of a black female student after a non-black peer used a racial slur against her and threatened to lynch her with an electrical cord.

It wasn't the first time such hostility had roiled the school, which admits students based on an entrance exam score and grades. But it wasn't till Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year – Jan. 18 – that two black 12th-graders, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, pushed the problem to the fore. Their YouTube video accused the school of failing to address racism in the classroom and on social media – catching the attention of civil rights groups and prompting Ms. Ortiz to open her investigation in early March.

American students have always been present on the front lines of social activism, from the civil rights movement to school desegregation. But on a day to day basis, perhaps surprisingly, their voices are often absent – either because they're not solicited or they go unheard.

Yet Ms. Noel and Ms. Webster-Cazeau highlight a growing agency among many whose views have been overlooked or marginalized, including black women. Buoyed by others who are speaking out and armed with the ability to get their message out to a broader community, they are building a sense of solidarity at a time when racial diversity in US schools has declined – and having an impact.

“[Student activism] has only been increasing since students are empowered and emboldened by things like social media,” says Andrew Brennen, national field director of Student Voice, a nonprofit that works to empower students to improve their educational institutions. “I think what has happened at Boston Latin is a really wonderful example of how ... important it is to be hearing directly from students on how aspects of school climate can be improved.”

While many students he has met with are still holding onto a “learned helplessness,” he says, student-initiated change is becoming much more common:

  • Students in Texas last year filed an amicus brief, forcing the state’s Supreme Court to hear their voices in a statewide education funding debate. In essence, they argued that the court needed to hear from students because they spent the most time in the classroom. They argued that the state’s school funding formula was outdated and unconstitutional, disadvantaging the most vulnerable kids.
  • Earlier this year, Boston public school students created the #BPSwalkout, prompting more than 3,000 students to march to the Boston Common, in view of the State House, to protest upcoming budget cuts.
  • High school and college students in Kentucky used #PowerballPromise to bombard legislators to redirect tens of millions of dollars being diverted year after year from a lottery fund that was supposed to go to need-based college scholarships. Eight thousand more students got access to college this year as a result.

In the case of Boston Latin, what stands out is who was driving the change, says Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communications studies at Northeastern University in Boston, who focuses on race and gender.

“So we know that the founders of BlackLivesMatter were black women, and what we also found in our research is that every day, young women are playing this sort of outsized role in social media spaces and shaping activism and racial justice conversations through technology,” she says.

Fewer students of color

Professor Jackson points to the recent proliferation of social media hashtags on college campuses, putting issues like racial discrimination or rape on college campuses squarely before the public gaze. While such activism has had mixed policy results, it has nonetheless given much greater voice to groups that have been less visible at historically white-male dominated institutions.

At the public high school level, social media has been a particularly powerful tool in the face of declining racial diversity. At Boston Latin, blacks made up around 20 percent of the student population in the late 1990s, but now they make up just about 8 percent. It has helped those in the minority to make connections as well as reach beyond the school walls – drawing many of the school’s black alumni into action.

Rashaun Martin, a graduate of the class of 1997, used to do outreach to help black children and their families prep for the Boston Latin entrance exam. He loves the school and says it played a major role in shaping his character. But the results of the Ortiz-led investigation were a necessary wake-up call, he says, for a school administration that may have “fallen asleep at the wheel” on issues of race, especially as the ranks of students of color declined.

He says he is “thrilled” with the work the school is doing to repair divides, much of which it began before the conclusion of the US attorney’s report. This has included consulting with black alumni, better training staff in cultural sensitivity, and improving the cultural diversity of the curriculum. Ultimately, Mr. Martin says, he sees this more like a reset than a setback – an opportunity for the school to bounce back stronger.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang and Boston Latin say they welcomed the report, agreeing to adopt a resolution that includes a raft of measures to improve the school’s relationship with its black students. Although some with close ties to the school – including former headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta, who stepped down amid the allegations in June – felt the race issues at the school had been overblown. “The picture painted in the US attorney’s report could not be further from the reality of life at the school I know and love,” Ms. Teta wrote, according to the Boston Globe.

In a letter, obtained by the Monitor, that updated parents after Ortiz issued her report, the school indicated that it wants the racial climate to mirror the excellence of its academic program.

“We at BLS do not want to be comparable to other schools; we want to be a leader in this regard as we are in many other educational endeavors. We welcome any efforts by BPS or the US Attorney’s Office to monitor our progress in fulfilling this commitment."

For Brennen from Student Voice, this is just the beginning.

“Students around the country are having real, lasting impact on schools," he says, "and I think it’s only going to increase from here."

Editor’s note: The name of the organization, Student Voice, has been corrected.

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