Racist slurs, threats and disparities: Why Iowa City high school students walked out of class Friday

Iowa City Community School District students and supporters hold a walk-out protest at the Pentacrest and march through the streets of downtown on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village.

Over 100 Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) students participated in a protest on Friday afternoon, walking out of school as the final period began and meeting on the Pentacrest to discuss racism within the district and what they consider the failure of schools and district administration to address it.

On Nov. 8, students at West High School staged a protest in response to two racist videos that were circulating on social media. In one, a white student using a racial slur reportedly threatened to stab Black students in the eyes, and in the other another white student was wearing blackface.

ICSSD Superintendent Matt Degner has said the incidents are being handled in accordance with the district’s disciplinary policies.

Racist language and actions have been a perennial problem in Iowa City schools, climate surveys conducted in the district have shown. The district has an ongoing commitment to address the problems, and in response to the protests of summer 2020 pledged an increased focus on issues involving systemic racism.

But the Annual Progress Report for the 2020-21 school year shows that stark racial disparities in discipline still exist in the district. In the 2020-21 school year, Black students made up only 21 percent of school enrollment, but 75 percent of suspensions. In the previous academic year, Black students accounted for 60 percent of suspensions.

One day after the protest at West High, students, parents and community leaders, such as members of the Black Voices Project, voiced their concerns about what is happening in the district at the Nov. 9 ICCSD Board of Directors meeting.

One of the speakers was Dasia Taylor, who as a West High senior last year won international attention for her invention of a surgical suture that indicates the presence of an infection by changing colors. Taylor, now a freshman at the University of Iowa, is the co-chair of the ICCSD Equity Committee.

“I’m disappointed and appalled about what happened,” Taylor said, regarding West. “But I’m not at all surprised. I told y’all.”

Concerned that the district was not doing enough to address its problems, members of the Black Student Union (BSU) organized Friday’s walk-out with assistance from the Iowa Freedom Riders.

Nisreen Elgaali, a senior at West and a BSU member, told the students and their supporters gathered in the cold on the Pentacrest Friday afternoon that the district preaches diversity and equity, but doesn’t practice it in schools.

“We’re tired of walking in school hallways and hearing racial slurs just because of our skin color and the way we look,” she said. “We are here to gather and protest around our town, so we can get action.”

Deasia Lewis, a 15-year-old student at West High, said that she had to withdraw from an Advanced Placement class when two white students repeatedly called another Black student the N-word.

“They kept saying it, they kept saying it, they kept saying it. And I’m a very sensitive person, so I started crying,” Lewis said.

She said her teacher told her there was nothing she could do. Lewis left the class and went to the guidance office to change her schedule.

“We shouldn’t have to switch out of AP classes or Honors classes because we feel uncomfortable,” she said. “This isn’t OK, and that’s what’s wrong within the school district. They don’t act on these types of things. That’s why we’re here now. We’re tired. Everyone’s tired. We’re speaking up.”

The BSU, along with other students, has presented a list of demands to the district:

  • Police officers should not be allowed in schools unless there is a serious threat or emergency.
  • The school board and administrators should create serious consequences for cases of discrimination and racism.
  • Students who threaten other students should not be allowed in schools.
  • The school board and administrators should share with everyone the consequences taken against racist and discriminatory actions by administrators and teachers.
  • School administrators should tell all sports teams within the district that condoning racism is unacceptable and violates anti-discrimination rules.

The protesters marched from the Pentacrest through downtown, shouting call-and-response chants like “Everywhere we go / People want to know / Who we are / So we tell them / We are the children / The mighty, mighty children / Here to tell you / Black Lives Matter!”

After the march, the crowd regathered back at the steps of the Old Capitol Building and shared their stories, ranging from racist comments and slurs to people ripping hijabs off Muslim students.

Nisreen Elgaali (left) and Shay Church (right) speak on the steps of the Old Capitol Building. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village.

Shay Church, a senior at Liberty High School, said that a male teacher she didn’t know stopped her in the hallway and asked if he could touch her hair and if it was real. She refused to answer and went to an administrator.

Church said she was told administrators were “talking behind the scenes,” but felt nothing really was being done.

“It’s not even just that. It’s the snarky remarks the students decide to make,” Church said. “When I go to school, I go there to get my education.”

One 15-year-old student at City High School, Bernadette Noore, said that other students have called her “prairie N-word” and other slurs because she is Indigenous and Black.

“We are here to represent every single Black person, no matter what their intersectionality is,” Elgaali said. “We support you 100 percent.”

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