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Punished: Students voice concerns of hate speech in Rochester Public Schools

by Niala Charles, Multimedia Journalist

ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) — For six years, Rochester Public Schools has been working to get to the bottom of discipline disparity that faces its students of color, but some students say the problem is deeper than that, and they’re facing discrimination at the hands of their peers.

A number of students say hate speech is being ignored in Rochester Public Schools. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 16 harassment incidents were reported within RPS in the 2015-2016 school year.

“We were in the classroom and there was a white student that pulled the ‘n’ card, so I told my teacher to make sure he heard, and he said if he didn’t hear it he couldn’t do anything about it,” said Joy Cooper, a black student at John Marshall High School.

Some students say it has gone on for years.

“There’s this one boy in my class who is always saying the n-word to me yelling at me,” said an anonymous John Marshall student.

“He pulled the ‘n’ card plenty of times throughout the hallways or in gym. That’s when I would tell my gym teacher,” said Victoria McDonald, a black student at John Marshall.

All of these students said they reported the incidents to administration, but their attackers returned to class the next day and continued the harassment.

“I’m like why won’t you do anything to resolve it?,” said McDonald.

The district said it takes measures to address these issues but, is not able to share everything with students because of privacy laws.

“There could be that perception that nothing was done, but there could’ve been something done they just weren’t aware of it,” said RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz.

However students say they don’t feel protected from the verbal abuse. Especially when they experience the same thing after their concerns are addressed to administrators.

“He keeps doing the same thing because nothing is going to happen if he keeps on doing it. Exactly and that’s the problem right there,” said McDonald.

According to the RPS district handbook, harassment based on race can result in a suspension or expulsion.

Muñoz says when such incidents are reported to teachers, students are sent to the office, and administrators handle disciplinary measures.

The Superintendent says the situations can be tricky.

“It is a challenge as an administrator when it’s not clear cut facts where the student admits to doing it or there wasn’t a witness,” said Muñoz.

“It’s not fair to us. Why do they get to say what they want when they feel like it, but I need to walk on eggshells around them,” said Nyra Luster, a black student at John Marshall.

Students say it feels like a double standard.

“If one of us called them out of their name they would’ve had ISS, lunch detention, or our parents would’ve been called,” said Cooper.

Sometimes these aggressions can lead to bigger problems in the halls.

“Right before winter break, there was a fight about some white boys pulling the ‘n’ card. The people they were talking towards didn’t take it so there was a fight between them and the kids who were being called the n-word. Those [black] kids were suspended. When we got back from break they didn’t get to come back but the white kids were back here walking the hallways and classes normally,” said Cooper.

The district declined to comment on this incident.

When words escalate to actions, the police liaison officer can be involved.

2009 Mayo High School Graduate Jonathan Walston says he was often asked to implicate students of color in crimes, but never for fights that occurred between white students.

“[The Police Liaison asked] Who threw the first punch? And I’m thinking in my head if I say so-and-so, that’s it for them. I’d come down there and want to say something, and say hey, if you want to know, you asked me for this, why not this? And anytime I’d bring it up they’d say get back to class we don’t have time for this today,” said Walston.

“Why would I go to them if I know they’re not going to do anything,” said Cooper.

“So you expect them to help you when you’re in need or help you when you need help solving it and it gets way out of hand but instead they think we’re in high school now we can take care of ourselves,” said McDonald.

“When you have relationships, when you have people to trust and believe in you people tend to take hold to that and they really want to work hard for you, not only you but themselves,” said RPS Equity Professional Willie Tipton.

Students say it would help to have teachers and staff who can relate to their problems.

“We’re not used to them doing anything so it’s not going to help us going to the same people over and over,” said Cooper.

“I feel like if we had more teachers or administrators who looked like us in the building we’d feel more comfortable going to them, but we don’t. So it doesn’t feel right,” said Cooper.

According to the school district, 2.9 percent of RPS teachers are of color, and 10.5 percent of paraprofessionals are of color.

The district urges students to continue to report instances of hate speech if they occur so that a pattern can be recorded.

Superintendent Muñoz says students or parents can contact him if their concerns aren’t addressed by administrators.


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