Local high schools become a new battleground in the push for racial justice

Greyson Van Arsdale
Worthington Kilbourne High School

The impact of the Justice for George Floyd movement has been felt around the world, and after weeks of sustained protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racism, Columbus-area schools are becoming a new battleground for those seeking justice.

Over the past month, Instagram accounts addressing Columbus-area school districts — including Dublin, Hilliard, New Albany, Olentangy, Worthington, Westerville and Upper Arlington — have posted hundreds of anonymous incidents of alleged discrimination at their schools. While the accounts were inspired by the recent protests against racism and police brutality, students have reported all kinds of discriminatory experiences via the Instagram accounts, from racism, homophobia and transphobia to incidents of sexual assault and harassment. This is in addition to the reckoning that has recently taken place in Bexley centered on a series of racist attacks levied by high school students against minority classmates on social media.

“I genuinely think that everyone is just tired of dealing with the same thing over and over again and nothing changing,” said the owners of Dear Westerville (@dearwcs), which include one current student and one former student from Westerville City Schools. “The Black Lives Matter Movement has definitely inspired all these accounts and given people the power to speak out and let those in charge know that we will not be dealing with this anymore. You will not silence us, and if you don’t want to change anything, then we will do it ourselves.”

(Alive has chosen not to publish the names of the students running the accounts in order to protect the privacy of minors; the student status of those quoted was independently verified. Interviews occurred via online messaging and have been lightly edited for clarity.)

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An Instagram account directed at Olentangy Local School District (@dearolsd) was the first of these local handles, and it has gained more than 6,300 followers since making its first post on June 18 — nearly as many followers as the total number of students at Olentangy’s four high schools. The owners of Dear OLSD took their inspiration from another popular Instagram account bringing attention to racial disparity: @dearpwi, which made its first post on June 12 and publishes anonymous reports of racism from predominantly white universities and colleges. Dear PWI has quickly made a big impact online, amassing close to 30,000 followers in the past month.

“Their account opened our eyes to a different way we can help give a voice to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color],” Dear OLSD said in an interview. “We noticed a pattern of the administration brushing the complaints of racism against minority Olentangy students under the rug. They flaunt their motto of academic excellence when their students, teachers and staff have created an uncomfortable and silencing environment for BIPOC. We’ve had enough, and decided it is most necessary to pressure the entire community to discuss a problem they willfully ignore.”

Though the accounts have received a lot of attention, not all of it has been positive.

“A more concerning side of things are the messages we have received from students who disagree with some of the stories posted here, or students who claim that they are fake,” said the current student behind the Dear UA Schools account (@dearuaschools). “However, that’s not up for us to judge. All we try to do is bring these stories to a wider audience and give people a space for them to tell those stories they may not have told other people before. If we look at someone’s story and invalidate them because we haven’t had the same experience, then we are just perpetuating the cycle of ignoring the problem.” 

The school districts of Westerville, Olentangy, Upper Arlington and Worthington did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email and phone, but have publicly committed to re-evaluating how to better fight racism in schools.

While some students are working on trying to change internal culture at their schools, others are taking aim at a different goal — removing school resource officers.

At the beginning of June, students from the Worthington school district wrote and published a letter addressed to their school board. The letter, which was linked to a Change.org petition, called on the school board to cut all ties with the Columbus and Worthington police departments, remove student resource officers, diversify curriculum and invest in student mental health resources.

We brought together current students and alumni to work on creating an anti-racist environment in our schools after we were outraged at police brutality happening to the black community,” said Melissa Yu, a senior at Worthington Kilbourne, speaking on behalf of the letter’s authors. “Many of us that wrote the letter are people of color. We wanted to do something to create tangible change.”

The letter also calls on the Worthington school district to publicly condemn the Columbus Division of Police’s actions against protesters, which the authors criticize as unduly hostile, citing violence against student protesters and journalists. The students submitted the letter to a meeting of the Worthington Board of Education on June 8, amid extensive public comment on the topic of school resource officers.

At its June 22 meeting, the Worthington school board passed an “anti-racist resolution” that promises to allocate resources for a more diverse curriculum and more diverse staff, but does not give a position on school resource officers.

Supporters of the petition submitted comments for the public meeting on June 22, pushing the school board to respond to the demands around school resource officers.

“Our demands are not a knee-jerk reaction,” wrote an unnamed former Worthington Kilbourne student in a public comment. “They are part of a movement that is continuing a 400-year-long struggle for justice. By meeting our demands, you will be responding appropriately to the police’s knee-jerk reactions to Black people in our community and our country, reactions that result in death without accountability.”

Nationally, school resource officers are under more scrutiny by school districts. Critics of police in schools note that Black and Hispanic students are arrested disproportionately in comparison to their white classmates. Data from Education Week show that in the 2013-14 school year, Black students made up 33.4 percent of all arrests, while making up just 15.5 percent of enrollment.

Columbus City Schools, which received pressure to re-evaluate school resources officers in June amid "CPD out of CCS" protests, has not renewed its contract with Columbus Police. The Columbus Division of Police has a separate contract with Worthington Schools, and one CPD school resource officer remains at Worthington Kilbourne. Worthington Schools has a separate contract with the Worthington Division of Police.

The authors of the petition and letter remain hopeful the Worthington school board will agree to their demands.

“This is really about equity,” Yu said. “It’s about creating a world where nobody has to worry that the color of their skin or their children's skin is going to have them killed one day. The end goal is to have an environment where everyone feels like they belong.”