Last week, a TikTok video surfaced on social media of a white Classical student imitating a racist caricature of a Black woman and possibly mouthing a racial slur. The video has sparked an uproar across Instagram and various social media apps.
Students and members of the community say this issue represents a deeper, constant racial tension within Classical High School’s culture. They say they are tired of seeing these incidents go unaddressed, and they are calling for Classical’s administration to take decisive action against the video’s uploader and the culture of complacency that it represents.
“It makes me annoyed,” says Layla Valenzuela, “because we see these things happen time and time again and no one seems to be learning anything at all about how this behavior affects other people.”
Similar incidents of racism on social media have been taking place for years. During the 2018-2019 school year, a white student used a racial slur on social media to attack a Black student. A year later, another white student uploaded a picture of themself in blackface, captioned “ew.” Students say these incidents go back much further.
The response from Classical’s administration has historically been some form of private disciplinary action, which they are not allowed to comment on publicly, and occasionally some sort of community discussion. However, the administration is not at liberty to explain a particular students’ misconduct to the community. Because students are often unaware of the situation they’re supposed to discuss, many students consider these restorative justice programs unproductive.
Valenzuela comments, “… it just becomes a cycle of problematic [incidents] with no one with administrative power trying to fix it.”
“[Classical’s administration] cover [these incidents] up… and silence the voices of POC,” says Anya Arroyo.
Students describe racism as an ever present stain on Classical’s reputation. A school once exclusive to white men, Classical is now known across Rhode Island and the country as a shining example of excellent education for a diverse community. However, according to Melanie Frias, these incidents of racism make her “embarrassed to be at our school.” She laments that “For being the ‘top school,’ our allies still betray us.”
“They tend to sweep things under the rug in an attempt to save their image as ‘#1 in RI’” asserts Soulaiman. Frias agrees, “The administration is more concerned [with] how the school looks… than the well being and the social issues we clearly have.”
Classical High School’s administration, however, is not hiding these incidents willfully or maliciously. They simply cannot legally comment on their own disciplinary practices. This policy, the Federal Education Rights and Policy Act (FERPA), is designed to protect students’ privacy, so that the administration couldn’t, for instance, publicly shame a student for graffitiing the school. That policy applies to hate speech, which occasionally causes some acts of extreme hatred to go unacknowledged.
The school may also be unable to address the situation through discipline. They cannot punish students for what they say outside of school, much in the way the school cannot censor The Classical Chronicle, an independent newspaper. The Supreme Court in Mahanoy Area School District v. B. L. (2021) ruled that a school cannot censor students for posting on social media outside of school.
According to Sara Clark, the chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association, the Supreme Court decision carved out only a few specific exceptions: the school can only discipline students for private social media posts which are serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals, threats aimed at teachers or other students, or anything advocating for or helping with academic dishonesty.
This particular instance of hate speech on social media is not covered by any of those exceptions. The student who posted the video did not bully or harass a particular student, even if their actions had a wide-spread effect. Other instances of hate speech on social media, like the instance from the 2018-2019 school year incident where one student called another the n-word, are distinguishably punishable.
Students have also complained on @classical.stories, an Instagram account created to anonymously amplify voices in this anti-racist upset, about how they feel Classical’s “clearly racist and sexist dress code,” represents part of the school’s problem. According to Lateefat Oguntade, these repeated incidents of hate speech make her feel “like someone could pour acid on my face because I’m Black and [the] administration would punish me for wearing a bonnet before punishing the racist who hurt me.”
The student whose racist depiction of a Black woman prompted this conversation has since taken down the video, deleted their account, and made a a public apology. They say they are not a racist person, and that the damage caused by that video was regrettable and accidental.
Some say this apology is not enough. “There needs to be real consequences for people who purposefully create an environment of hatred,” says Latifah Soulaiman. Melanie Frias agrees, “We need admin to start caring. [They need to have] people suffer consequences.”
Classical High School English Teacher Jamie Woods weighed in on the situation in an email to a student. She asserts that her daughter is not a racist person, but does not acknowledge the harm her daughter’s actions may have caused regardless. “I can assure you no child of mine has ever used racist language,” says Ms. Woods.
Students on social media have condemned this email: “Ms. Woods’s response annoyed me because she couldn’t even admit her daughter made a mistake,” said a student who asked to be referred to as Bella, “[Ms. Woods] works for the school, so of course the school will not even listen to us.”
Christina Keomany says that these incidents still cause pain, even if some people don’t notice: “Even if certain individuals don’t see an issue with the incident, many others do. Admin should take care of this situation and make sure to talk to [the video’s uploader] about it.”
According to the non-profit Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ACSD), “What educators can’t do (due to law and regulation) is passively ignore hateful speech that ‘creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment.’” They also say that “the most powerful work is preventative: ‘convincing the student that they don’t want to say it and it’s not right to say it, so they learn that it’s not the right thing to do.’”
Classical’s administration is allowed and required to publicly and constantly reinforce that Classical is a welcoming and anti-racist environment, especially after an incident of hate speech. Classical students say they have not been doing so, and leading authorities on public education administration say that they should.