‘Increasingly alarming’: Olathe schools consider harsher punishment for racial harassment

Sarah Ritter/sritter@kcstar.com

As more students speak out about widespread and unchecked racism in their schools, Olathe district officials are considering issuing harsher punishments for racial harassment.

Students have been demanding stronger discipline for racism, saying the rampant use of slurs and hate speech by fellow students is not handled seriously enough. The push comes after Olathe South High School sophomore Kirubel Solomon last month shared with the media the racism and harassment he’s endured since the start of the spring semester, sparking protests.

Solomon said three white students had been targeting and harassing him because he is Black. Last month, Solomon said he was in his metal and jewelry making class when they handed him a flat piece of copper with the N-word and a heart stamped into it.

He said he reported the incident and the previous months of harassment to Olathe South Principal Dale Longenecker. Solomon claimed that two of the white students received 10 days of out-of-school suspension, while the third received a few days.

“The staff’s ignorance has created a hole for actions like this to take place at our schools. And the negligence from administrators and district officials has let it come down to this,” Solomon told the school board at its meeting last week. “This has become increasingly alarming. How can we trust a district to educate us when they refuse to protect us?”

Students protested outside of district headquarters and walked out of class last month, urging officials to fire Longenecker and do more to combat racism. Longenecker was also at the head of Olathe South a couple of years ago, when a photo circulated of a students posing with a racist homecoming sign. Many parents and students questioned the school’s handling of the incident.

Late last month, Longenecker resigned.

Now, district officials are considering making racial harassment and hate speech a more serious offense.

This spring, a committee of school and district administrators reviewed the student code of conduct, which is evaluated each year, said district spokeswoman Erin Schulte.

The committee is recommending that harassment be moved from a “Class II” offense to a “Class III” offense, to allow “for administration to carry out more appropriate consequences,” she said. The definition of harassment includes any comments, jokes, slurs, spitting, touching or other behavior based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.

Under the code of conduct, administrators have a wide range of less severe options for disciplining students for Class II offenses. But Class III offenses all result in suspension or expulsion.

The lesser, Class II offense allows administrators to punish students by: issuing a behavior or safety plan, reviewing bus and computer privileges, using restitution or restorative justice approaches, holding a parent conference, restricting attendance at school activities, revoking the ability to participate in sports or activities, requiring community service, and issuing detention, in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension.

If harassment is classified as the more serious, Class III offense, administrators could punish students by: issuing in-school suspension, short-term or long-term out-of-school suspension or expulsion.

Other offenses in the Class III category include threats, gang related violence, sexual misconduct, causing serious physical harm, burglary, drug possession and arson. The offenses require a report to law enforcement if criminal conduct is suspected.

“The recent incident at Olathe South reaffirms the committee’s decision to update the Code of Student Conduct to reflect this recommended change,” Schulte told The Star in an email.

District officials said the school board could vote on the amended student code of conduct as early as later this month.

Solomon told the school board that the district has “catered for too long to the hate and ignorance directed” at students of color. He demanded officials “make harsher punishments for hate-based offenses, provide mandatory training to all teachers on diversity matters, and change the curriculum to stop only teaching Black failures and include more diversity in the general curriculum for all classes.”

After Solomon shared his experience with racial harassment, several other students have come forward with similar stories. Fellow Olathe South sophomore Jamya Haynes told The Star that a classmate called her a racial slur this spring. She reported it to her teacher, who she said didn’t believe her at first.

“But at the school, it’s a normalized thing. It’s expected,” she said.

Haynes said she has attended Olathe schools since kindergarten and has “never been in a Black teacher’s classroom.”

Deborah Kelecha, who graduated from Olathe South this year, told the school board last week that her academic achievements “will never outweigh the damage that being a minority in a predominantly white school did to my self-confidence and ability to stand up for myself.

“Minority students in this district condition themselves to accept comments and remarks on their differences to avoid conflict. And that conditioning takes years to undo. Schools are preparatory in more ways than academic. And unfortunately my school, and the district at large, have failed to foster a safe environment.”

Parent Robyn Wilson-Cale told the school board last week that her eighth grade son was called the N-word during P.E. last month at Chisholm Trail Middle School. She claimed that a month earlier, a Chisholm student made a video using the same slur and sent it to students during school.

“These types of incidents happen way too often and are frequently ignored with the hope that it will go away because it makes people uncomfortable to talk about it,” she said.

While stronger punishment for such racist behavior is a start, many are pushing for the district to take more steps to eradicate racism.

Students and parents have called on the district to initiate an investigation into its policies and practices to ensure racism is better addressed, to implement stronger diversity programs and training, a system for students to more easily and confidentially report harassment and discrimination, the hiring of a more diverse workforce, as well as stronger collaboration with students and the community on tackling racial inequities.

Many also want the district to have more diverse curriculum, to teach students about the history and experiences of people of color, something they say is severely lacking. Meanwhile, conservative parents and politicians across the country, and in Kansas and Missouri, have been fighting to limit curriculum on race and slavery in America.

“Our family comes from a history of slavery and veterans,” Wilson-Cale said. “One of our ancestors, who was a slave, was sexually assaulted by her owner. When he was done with her, he sold her for 25 cents. My grandfather and uncle fought for this country to make it a better place for all of us, including their family. ... My father attended the first integrated school in Chillicothe, Missouri.

“This is just part of our family’s history that is just not taught. We live an uncomfortable life every day. I’m tired of hearing it might make someone uncomfortable to learn about our ancestors’ history. We learn your ancestors’ history. Why is our history less important?”