Racist and offensive remarks from teachers. Little reaction from administrators to a swastika etched into a desk. Mocked for using chopsticks.
Ten Wilson High School students shared their experiences with racism and anti-Semitism with school staff, community members and school board directors at a meeting Thursday evening.
Aria Morgan, a sophomore at Wilson, described a teacher who used a fake accent and contorted his eyes during a lesson on ancient China.
“I felt so unsafe, and so disrespected in my own school,” Morgan said.
She and others shared experiences of being singled out in class for being the only person of color. Wilson is one of Portland’s least diverse high schools.
Fellow sophomore and president of Wilson’s Black Student Union, Aslan Newson, gave an emotional plea for school leaders to change the culture at the southwest Portland high school.
“I’m here because I have a younger brother and he is also a person of color,” Newson said. “I do not want him going through the things we have gone through.”
Thursday’s community conversation was a follow-up to a spate of hateful incidents last spring. The incidents drove students of color to write a letter to the administration and walk out of class in May, citing a lack of response and lack of support.
During the event, a mostly-white audience listened as students talked about being mocked or called out for their race or ethnicity, with little response from the administration.
After requesting a class change because of a teacher’s actions, one student said she was told she could no longer talk about her experiences. The student said staff told her she was overreacting.
Another student recalled a vice principal telling her not to take racial slurs seriously.
“I really hope that we do something to change this because it’s so sad that we can’t feel safe in schools just for being who we are,” Morgan said.
Three Portland Public Schools board members, at least one PPS staffer, several Wilson teachers, all three Wilson vice principals, and new principal Filip Hristic all sat in the audience.
After the students shared their stories, Hristic addressed them. He used “I” statements, in keeping with a district-wide equity program PPS has employed, called Courageous Conversations about Race. PPS no longer has a license for the program, leading some advocates to further question the district’s commitment to equity and inclusivity.
“I feel sad, I feel confused, and I feel a little bit daunted by the task of being the principal of Wilson High School, the new principal of a school that has gone through a lot,” Hristic said. “I feel the weight of the responsibility to make sure we don’t keep making the same mistakes.”
After a student called out a Wilson vice principal for targeting and intimidating students of color, Hristic spoke in support of students speaking openly.
“You have nothing to worry about, none of you need to worry about repercussions,” Hristic said. “What you all did tonight took a lot of courage.”
There have been early signs of progress. Hristic has met with student groups. A student on Thursday’s panel said after another swastika was found at Wilson last week, families received an email. And this year Wilson will become a “No Place for Hate” school, a program from the Anti-Defamation League that requires school programming to address bullying and bias.
Nichole Watson, a PPS teacher working this year as a developer of racial equity and community partnerships with the Portland Association of Teachers, facilitated the event. In her new role, Watson has been working with Wilson students. She encouraged community members in the audience to support students.
“I hope that when you leave tonight, you begin to organize yourselves to figure out how to wrap our arms around our babies,” Watson said.
Community members and parents who attended the event will be included in future planning and efforts to support students.
The Wilson students asked white parents to be cognizant of their children and make sure they respond quickly to any racist behavior.
The students also asked for moral and financial support for Wilson High School’s affinity clubs — the Black Student Union, the Asian Pacific Islander Club and the Muslim Student Association.
And the students asked community members not to forget them or their stories.
“What are you going to leave this room and do about it?” Newson asked. “Because our issues and our problems that we face every day are real, and whether you want to take accountability for it, we face it every single day.”