As one of the few nonwhite kids in his eighth-grade class at Lake Oswego Junior High in Portland, Ore., 13-year-old Christiaan Bedford was unfortunately accustomed to hearing racial slurs lobbed his way. But when his mom, Jennifer Cook, arrived to pick him up after school one day in January and learned that three white kids had handed him a Post-it note with the words “n***** dog” scribbled on it, she said: Enough.
In a Facebook post detailing the incident, Cook says she went immediately to school administrators, who assured her that the situation would be dealt with, and that the student perpetrators would be punished. Her son, she said, was upset but was also “used to it,” telling his mom that he hears the N word anywhere from “five to 20 times a day.” To Cook, the incident was just one example of a growing problem — one that required a prompt solution.
“They told me the children would be suspended. This ended up not being completely true, two of the three kids received in school suspension for one day,” Cook wrote in her post, which has now been shared 1,800 times. “A one day suspension is completely inadequate for a hate crime.”
After sending an email to the school calling for more action, Cook was met with what she calls a “dismissive” response from principal Sara Deboy, who directed her to a blog post she’d written on the topic. (The school did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for an interview.) The post, titled “The Power of Words,” began by discussing research about how malleable young kids’ brains are, before offering a defense of the students who made racial slurs in the hallways.
“I have found that when [racial slurs] are used, the students have a hard time explaining their intent— they may claim it was meant as a joke, they did not connect the word to the meaning, etc. I believe them,” Deboy writes. “That is why it is on all of us as the adults in their lives to help them understand how we cannot allow these words to be part of jokes or allow them to be thrown around as if they had no meaning. These words have power.”
Principal Deboy didn’t offer any specific plans of action in the blog post, but said instead that the issue will be a topic at the school’s advisory committee meeting next month. Dissatisfied with the response, Cook and others planned a meeting to discuss the incident.
For students at Oswego, the battle against racism has been ongoing. Last March, students at the sister high school discovered racial slurs scribbled on the bathroom walls. Later in the year, also at the high school, anti-Semitic comments surfaced on a student-run Facebook page.
For many in the community, a crackdown on racial harassment seems long overdue. In the absence of a strong response from the principal, students at Lake Oswego decided to take matters into their own hands. On Monday morning, over 200 of them staged a walkout of the school in the name of racial equality, marching out of their classrooms and onto the front lawn around 9 a.m. Their goal was to take a stand against racism, and the administration’s failure to stand up to it.
A video taken from the walkout shows the hundreds of students sitting on the lawn, listening to speeches, and holding signs with hashtags like #TimesUp. “On a daily basis I tend to hear racial slurs from the students,” Dakota Webb, another black student at Oswego told local Fox 12 during an interview. “They seem to think it’s really funny — and I can’t really do anything because it happens from so many angles. It hurts.”
The school, which was aware of the walkout, later confirmed that the two students who wrote the note received detention, and the one who passed the note was given an in-school suspension. In a broad statement released afterwards, the administrators acknowledged the need for greater diversity at the school, and cited a plan to hire a “permanent director of diversity, equity and inclusion” for the school district.
But to students at Oswego — and to mothers like Jennifer Cook — it’s still not enough. “It makes my heart sink,” Cook said to the Lake Oswego Review in the aftermath of the walkout. “This isn’t the first time, and it’s not going to be the last time. But he’s got such a beautiful soul and spirit, and I don’t want it to be chipped away because of these people.”
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