Racist sign triggers soul-searching at high school

Some say Native dropout rate related to racially charged atmosphere

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

Juneau-Douglas High School officials said Thursday they have suspended the student who displayed a derogatory sign about Natives from a school bus on Jan. 27.

The incident sparked concerns about a generations-long pattern of racism at the school. Several hundred people attended a forum at ANB Hall on Thursday afternoon to prepare a list of solutions for consideration by the Juneau School District.

"If you are the subject of racism, then that becomes the lens through which you filter other situations," said teacher Laury Scandling in an interview Thursday. Scandling works in the CHOICE program for students at risk of dropping out.

The suspended student is part Native, but that doesn't negate the seriousness of racial incidents at the high school, Scandling said.

Some Native students say they've been spit on or pushed against the wall in halls. Teachers report seeing the initials KAN, which stand for Kids Against Natives, written on students' desks. Some brawls may have racial causes or involve racial name-calling, Scandling said.

A survey of JDHS students two years ago about the perceived social status of student groups ranked Natives at the bottom, under gays and lesbians, she said.

At the ANB Hall forum, several Native students said they were afraid to walk the halls alone at JDHS because they face physical or verbal intimidation. Some students said teachers don't always intervene when students harass other students.

"We have taken 20 steps backwards," community member Ken Perkins told the audience. "This is the 21st century. This should have been eradicated long ago."

The bus incident also sparked a meeting Tuesday of the site council's school climate subcommittee. It attracted about 100 people - including students, staff, parents, Juneau School Board members and Native leaders - to talk about racism at JDHS.

Attendees suggested that the school train a staff member to investigate racial incidents.

Some said the disproportionate rate of Native dropouts is related, for some students, to a racially charged and unwelcoming atmosphere.

Attendees pointed out that programs disproportionately used by Natives - such as English as a second language and CHOICE - are housed separately, in the Marie Drake building, making the JDHS building feel forbidding to Native students.

Yvonne Willis, a junior, was one of several students who saw the sign in the bus window. It read: "F****** Natives." She reported it to school officials.

"I felt kind of angry because I didn't know this person," Willis said of the sign holder in an interview Thursday. "They didn't know how we are. I just felt mad and angry. I just wanted to go up to them and ask, 'Why are you saying this stuff?' "

Assistant Principal Kathryn Milliron said the student, a boy, was suspended for 10 days, the maximum period under the school district's discipline grid for such offenses.

She said the district has a a strong policy against any kind of harassment, including racial slurs, and against actions that intimidate students or make them feel unsafe.

School administrators review the student handbook, including the section on harassment, with all students every year, Milliron said. The school deals with harassment by using mediation between the offenders and victims, by referring the incident to a youth-run court, or by suspending the student for one to 10 days. Suspensions can be appealed.

"Harassment is one of the things we talk about because harassment is one of the main things we deal with," Milliron said. "... This particular incident has had such a ripple effect that we chose to go 10 days (of suspension) on the person."

Milliron said the suspended student is remorseful and would like to meet in a mediation with the students who saw the sign.

At ANB Hall, students suggested teachers should enforce rules against harassment better, the district should have no tolerance for discrimination, and the school should have advocates for students to talk to when they don't want to talk to the usual authorities, among other ideas.

"We do care deeply about the things we're hearing about and want to respond and will respond," schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan told the attendees.

For Native adults, the concerns are not new. Juneau Assembly member Randy Wanamaker, who attended JDHS during the early 1960s, said he faced harassment but it was "easy to tolerate and work around" because the building wasn't crowded.

"The overcrowding (now) exacerbates it quite a bit," he said in an interview.

"Growing up in the school system, I was spat upon," said Robert Cesar. "The worst comment I heard was being called a 'muk.' That continually happened from kindergarten through graduation."

Karen Lawfer, who is not Native, said parents should have no tolerance for harassment.

"I challenge the non-Native kids, when they see this happen, to stand up and say it's not right," she said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

Who to call

Juneau-Douglas High School students and parents can call an anonymous Safe Line at 463-1889 to report any type of safety concern to school staff.



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