Dozens of Shawnee Mission East High School students walked out of class on Monday to protest the handling of a fight they said left a Black student in the hospital after being punched by a white student who was shouting a racist slur.
At 11 a.m. Monday, a mass of students walked out of class and marched outside of Shawnee Mission East, chanting “We want change,” “Have our backs” and “How many more times.” The walkout was sparked by the recent altercation that students characterized as a hate crime. But several of the high schoolers argued it was only the latest in a series of racist incidents they say have happened without school leaders taking appropriate action.
Students held signs that read, “We demand action! Protect students of color,” “We don’t feel safe,” and “Take action now.” They called on school leaders to take stronger steps to eradicate racism and issue more serious discipline for discrimination and hate speech.
“This has been an ongoing issue with racism at East. There are multiple situations that have happened over and over again,” senior Charlize Littlejohn said. “I think we’re all just really tired of trying to get change and it just not happening. We’re just exhausted. Trying to go to class, it really affects us.”
A district spokeswoman did not immediately answer The Star’s questions about the incident.
Littlejohn said she was in a school hallway last week when a fight broke out. A video shared with The Star shows a Black, female student walking away from what seemed to be an exchange of words with another student. She’s heard saying, “Don’t say nothing unless you’re gonna come say it to my face.”
Then a white, male student — who a couple of students told The Star was not involved with the previous argument — interjects telling her to, “Shut the **** up.” The female student turns around and starts walking in his direction. He charges toward her, shouting the N-word. He then pushes her. They both start throwing punches. A fight ensues with both students hitting each other.
A group of students in the hallway call for help and the fight is broken up. Students who were watching called out the male student for pushing the girl first and using the N-word against her. Littlejohn said both students are sophomores.
A few students told The Star that the fight sent the female student to the hospital with a broken nose. The girl was not at Monday’s protest, but students said she drove by and waved to acknowledge her classmates’ support. Littlejohn said the student is not returning to school yet.
“We were all there. We all watched it. It was emotional and it was traumatizing,” Littlejohn said. “I want things to change. Everybody who was there watching it, they’re not going to feel safe. I’m not going to feel safe in class. Because that could have been anybody. He could have done it to anybody. And I think that’s just scary something like that can happen inside of a school.”
It’s unclear how the school may have punished the white student, but students at the protest said he received a suspension they felt was not a strong enough punishment.
“We heard he’s coming back in three days,” Sanaia Nelson, a junior, said Monday.
Littlejohn said she’s frustrated, claiming students were not offered any support or explanation after the fight.
“There was no follow-up, no email sent, no announcement. It wasn’t recognized,” she said.
Students who witnessed or heard about the fight helped organized Monday’s protest.
“We coming out here wanted to give that recognition to the things that aren’t being recognized,” Nelson said. “This has happened too many times in our school and nothing has changed.”
Students argued that there’s a pattern of racist incidents occurring at Shawnee Mission East, including students using slurs toward other students, which they feel the school is not taking seriously enough.
“We’ve been in their office trying to talk to them about it. They just never really want to do anything,” Littlejohn said. “They’ll listen to us and make comments, but they’ll never really do anything to tell people this is not allowed here and this cannot go on. These people are not getting the discipline that they need, so no one’s going to take anything seriously, and they’re going to keep thinking they can do it.”
Shawnee Mission East, with about 1,700 students, is about 83% white. More than 8% of students are Hispanic and nearly 5% are multiracial, according to Kansas State Department of Education data. Overall in the Shawnee Mission district, 61% of students are white, 20.5% are Hispanic and 9% are Black.
The protest comes after several others at area school districts, where students over the past couple of years have fought for stronger punishment for hate speech and racism.
In Olathe this past spring, students protested for similar reasons after Olathe South High School student Kirubel Solomon said he was in his metal and jewelry making class when three white students handed him a flat piece of copper with a racial slur stamped into it. Solomon said the students had been targeting and harassing him for months because he is Black.
Much like in Shawnee Mission, Olathe students said that was only the latest of many racist incidents they had witnessed at their school. Not long after the protest, then-principal Dale Longenecker resigned. And the Olathe school board voted to make racial harassment and hate speech a more serious offense under the student code of conduct.