Solomon Desta and his son Kirubel Solomon standing next to each other in their yard
Last May, Solomon Desta (left) found out his son Kirubel Solomon had been enduring racist bullying from his classmates for months in USD 233 in Olathe, Kansas. He decided to talk to the district to seek a change. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon).

Students have a right to a safe and discrimination-free environment while at school. But when acts of racism or discrimination happen, what can a parent do to protect their child? 

Early last year at Stucky Middle School in Wichita, students held a protest after a teacher made comments perceived as racist. KWCH reported that the teacher told her students to go pick cotton. Students boycotted the teacher’s first-hour class the next day.

“That don’t feel right, what (the teacher) said,” Keuntis Henderson, a student at the school, told KWCH. “I’ll never feel right (with) what she said. She said something no one could believe she would say.”

Research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that race is the leading factor for hate-related speech that occurs in schools.

Racism in school disproportionately hits Black students, who account for 15.1% of the national K-12 student population but make up 37% of racial harassment targets. (Wichita’s public school population is 19.5% Black.) The U.S. Department of Education received a record number of discrimination complaints last year, most based on race, disability or sex. 

The principal at Stucky Middle School let students voice their concerns together at the boycott in the cafeteria. KAKE reported USD 259 conducted an internal investigation and the teacher apologized to her students. 

“We accept her apology, but we would like her to be sensitive to our friends going forward,” Rey-Zhian Shears Montgomery, another student, said to KAKE. 

Experts on equity and legal rights in education say families shouldn’t tolerate discrimination. Here’s what you need to know if your child is experiencing racism in school:   

Know your legal protections

The legal right to be free from racist discrimination in school is guaranteed in federal law, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI applies in all states as long as a school receives federal funding. That means virtually all public school districts and charter schools. 

Discrimination can be interpersonal — such as slurs, stereotypes or racist jokes. It can also include systemic practices that don’t give Black students equal opportunities to succeed. 

For example, data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity showed that schools referred Black students to the police more often than white students. In Kansas, the police referral rate for Black students was nearly three times the rate for white students. 

Title VI also covers discrimination based on national origin and includes the failure to provide language services for students, parents or guardians who aren’t comfortable speaking English. 

A school that gets a report of racial harassment — such as verbal insults or racially motivated violence — is obligated by law to investigate the alleged incident even if the misbehavior comes from other students.

If a school determines a situation has created a hostile environment severe enough to limit the victim’s ability to participate in or benefit from their education, it’s required to fix the situation. In some cases, a single incident can meet the legal standard for a hostile environment. 

And the response needs to work, said Paige Joki, staff attorney at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania nonprofit.

“The school has to do something about” a hostile environment to comply with federal law, she said. “That includes doing more than what they’ve already tried that isn’t working.”

The law often doesn’t mandate specific remedies. That gives families an opportunity to request solutions tailored to their situation, ones they believe will make their students feel safe and supported, Joki said. 

William Polite Jr., director of equity, diversity, and accountability at USD 259, said the school has implemented restorative practices to foster a safe environment to help address any acts of bullying and discrimination. 

The method is described on USD 259’s website as “building positive relationships with one another, and restoring relationships when harm has occurred.”

“We are also trying to be proactive and not just reactive,” Polite said. “That includes being trained in listening circles and small group facilitation.” 

Learn how others fought racism in school

Federal law protects all students from racial harassment, but no statute can magically control how students act toward each other.

Solomon Desta, whose son attends Olathe South High School near Kansas City, was working one day last May when he got a call that three of his son’s white classmates had handed the child a piece of metal with the N-word carved into it.

Desta’s son, Kirubel Solomon, had been weathering racial bullying at school for years. His father only got a sense of that when things came to a head over the piece of metal. Desta wanted to protect his son. 

“That was the biggest, most potent incident of (racism), but I’ve always experienced gestures of racism in the school district from elementary till now,” Solomon said. 

Stereotypical remarks about Black students being “thuggish” and “hood” are commonplace at his school, he said, as well as derogatory jokes about dark-skinned students such as “midnight black.” 

“The whole culture of the building is backward,” said Kirubel, who’s a junior now. 

When racism is deeply embedded in how a school operates, it can take ongoing work to combat it. 

As in the case at Stucky Middle School, dozens of students and parents from Olathe South held a protest after the May incident with a list of demands to the school district, including the firing of the principal. He eventually resigned, which Kirubel sees as a step in the right direction so long as it is followed by continuous change.

Students and families don’t have to wait for the situation to escalate, like it did for Kirubel, before they act. 

Know the teachers, administrators

Polite said that if an issue arises in Wichita, a parent should first reach out to their student’s teacher or principal. He said the issue can usually be solved right away on the school level. 

If the parent is unsatisfied with the school’s answer or is uncomfortable talking to the school’s principal, Polite said they can contact Wichita Public Schools’ parent and community support specialist Carla Clement. The office will take the complaint and then provide the information to the right department and supervisor that can address the problem. 

Document, document, document

In general, Joki said, families dealing with racism in school should record as much as possible. That includes taking photos of offensive posters, screenshotting abusive texts or online posts, writing down details of in-person interactions and emailing administrators summaries of phone conversations. 

Reporting exactly what was said, even if it’s uncomfortable to repeat curse words or racial slurs, can make it harder to ignore that the problem is racial harassment rather than some other form of bullying, she said. Noting potential witnesses helps, too. The Education Law Center offers a checklist of information to collect, though some is specific to Pennsylvania. 

“Reporting what folks aren’t doing sometimes is just as important as reporting what folks are,” Joki said. “So if the slur was said, and there’s a teacher in the room, and they’re not responding, that’s really important.”

Specifically saying that a student is experiencing racial discrimination — or discrimination on the basis of their race, color or national origin — can also emphasize that a family knows its rights, Joki said. 

If reporting to the school doesn’t solve a problem, families can also report discrimination to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Find strength in numbers to fight racism in school

The students at Stucky knew that it was better to work together to get their voices heard. The Wichita Beacon has a guide for protesting in Wichita. It includes rights and laws that one may run into if they want to hold a protest. 

Parents can also team up to speak at school board meetings together. Groups of activists helped change Wichita’s school board elections last year after The Wichita Beacon reported that the previous voting process diminished the power of minority voices in the city. 

That process started by people teaming up to face the school board together. The Wichita Beacon also has a guide for how to attend your local school board meetings.

Maria Benevento, education reporter for The Kansas City Beacon, contributed to this story.

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Mili Mansaray is a freelance reporter for The Beacon and was a summer 2020 intern. Follow Mili on Twitter @MansarayMili.

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.