Update (6/29/2020): On Monday at 6 p.m. the Fox Chapel Area School Board is holding a special meeting where it’s scheduled to vote on a resolution committing the district to a series of measures to address diversity problems across the district, including reports of racism by students and a lack of diversity among staff.
“We commit to use our role as school board directors to recognize, respond, and speak out against injustice and racial inequity in our school community,” the board resolution reads.
The resolution expresses the board’s support for a series of changes: to the curriculum, to the district’s hiring practices, to staff professional development, to its approach to Black History month and to how district police officers are trained. The resolution also mentions that going forward the potential discriminatory impact of all policies will be considered as part of the normal review process and says the board and the superintendent will begin giving updates on these efforts no later than October.
Hundreds of Fox Chapel students and alumni are calling on their school district to more aggressively address racial injustice in the district as Black Lives Matter protests have sprung up across the country, including the Pittsburgh region. They are also considering a protest of their own.
These calls for justice and reforms are emerging as the district is conducting an investigation into offensive photos and racist videos posted on a student’s Instagram account with racial epithets. The videos that started circulating recently showed Fox Chapel students using the n-word, in one case, shouting it at a house party while students were dancing.
According to students in the Black Student Union who made the complaints, the district told students that the language used was inexcusable and it is “investigating the situation.” The district told students that it would contact the students and families in the videos but also said it was limited in how it could respond to student behavior off campus.
Bonnie Berzonski, a district spokesperson, acknowledged that officials had seen videos with racial epithets and said the district is following district policies and the law but "will not comment on specific student matters.”
For William Generett, a graduating senior and president of the Black Student Union, the videos provided tangible evidence of the attitudes he has long complained about witnessing in the district.
"There was something going wrong with these kids' education,” Generett said. "Something needs to change.”
More than 800 students' and alumni’s names were included on an open-petition created on June 4 calling on the district to make more public the support for Black Lives Matter and to execute sweeping changes at a time when anti-racism protests are happening across the country. The vast majority of the names are from current students or alumni who graduated in the past few years.
The petition makes 12 requests for change, including asking the district to review its entire curriculum to include more diversity, to hire a staff member to oversee the district’s “equity and inclusion” work and to require any security officers on district property to undergo bias training.
The petition also calls on the district to interview at least one Black candidate for every job opening. Fox Chapel Area High School only has one Black teacher, according to a report made to the school board in search for a new superintendent.
Several alumni wrote the petition but one of the primary authors, Nathan Wecht, a Fox Chapel graduate in 2017, declined to speak about it. “I feel as though it’s not the place of a white ally to answer the questions, however I’d be happy to direct you to the leaders of the Fox Chapel Student Union,” he wrote.
On June 1, the district released a statement to parents touting its efforts to run an inclusive and supportive district. "To say that we are incredibly saddened by what has happened in our country in recent days is an understatement,” the statement starts off. The district statement repeatedly mentions its support of diversity but doesn’t specify Black students in particular.
Among its efforts, for example, the district statement mentions that in middle and high school students learn about civil rights and racism. But Generett said that he thinks there needs to be instruction about slavery even earlier than that. He started out in the district in 4th grade but said slavery wasn’t in his curriculum until middle school.
Korey Simmons, who just finished his freshman year at The College of Wooster and served as the treasurer of the Black Student Union, said he has to describe Fox Chapel differently to Black and white students. For white students, he emphasizes what a great district it is and how strong the academics are. But for Black students he then adds that they need to be prepared to feel isolated and alone.
“While in other schools there may be some racial tensions,” he said, “in Fox Chapel there are some kids that are blatant with it. It’s more in your face.”
For example, Simmons said that on his first day of high school in Fox Chapel a girl in Spanish class asked him if he was in a gang because, she said, he previously attended Obama Academy for middle school. On two other occasions he reported being called racial epithets like “porch monkey” to the school administration and the students received no consequences.
Warner Macklin IV, a graduating senior and the vice president of the Black Student Union, said he and other Black students have heard white students use the n-word. The white students think “it’s cool” because they see Black people use the term without intending harm, he said.
“Whenever it’s happened to me, I don’t get mad,” he said. “I just try to sit them down and talk about it. I talk about how it’s disrespectful and what the n-word means and try to educate them.”
Last year, most of the Black speakers who were brought in to address students, were brought in by the Black Student Union, he said, rather than the district. The district has also relied on the students to run its Black History Month, he said.
Generett met with the district’s principals but they told him that most of the changes he’s asking for would require school board and superintendent approval. Generett is now trying to schedule a meeting with the district but said that if there isn’t sufficient progress, the students would organize a protest.
“There are a lot of kids willing and ready,” he said.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.