Students, adults petition district to combat racism

Posted: Friday, February 13, 2004

As a student, Barbara Cadiente-Nelson left Juneau-Douglas High School because she couldn't take the racism there, she told about 60 students and adults who met Thursday afternoon at ANB Hall to talk about prejudice at school.

"I experienced racism at its worst," said Cadiente-Nelson, of Tlingit and Filipino heritage. "I knew what it felt like to be pushed into lockers, called names and spit at. I knew what it was to taste someone else's spit."

Now holding a master's degree, Cadiente-Nelson teaches world literature at JDHS. She told the assembled students that efforts have been made to make the school safe, following renewed concerns about racism that were sparked by a student's derogatory sign about Natives last month.

But she also said students told her the initials KAN, which have been written on school desks at JDHS, stand for "kill all Natives," not "kids against Natives," as she first believed.

At Thursday's meeting, the second of an ad hoc group of students and adults, students asked that the group's upcoming petition to city and school district officials be amended to include all of their concerns about racism.

The original petition asked the Juneau School District to address four concerns immediately: that all students have an equal right to receive a fair and just education; that they have the right to learn and pass with honors from grade to grade; that they have the right to meet and exceed state standards; and that they have the right to graduate with knowledge that will help them in the next phase of their lives.

But students said that list focused too much on academics.

"Just academics - it wouldn't give us that security to feel things would be changed," said student Nick Kokotovich, a member of a Tlingit and Haida youth leadership group.

The petition now will include the detailed report about students' concerns that emerged from a meeting on Feb. 5.

Students fault the school district for not helping students prevent and report racism; not having a zero-tolerance policy toward racism; not having an organized way to address racism; not sufficiently enforcing existing policies on harassment and racism; not training staff and students on how to prevent racism; and not responding immediately to prevent violence.

Schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the students are asking for clarity, consistency and fairness in policies and procedures about harassment.

"Even a new student can recognize racism going on in schools," said Katie Botz, who moved to Juneau from Kodiak in August. "... There is a way to stop racism, to stop prejudice. There has to be a way. It's just so frustrating to know it's everywhere, and it has been here for a long, long time."

George Paul said two of his sons left JDHS for alternative schools.

"I did have two sons who wanted to go to school in a safe environment, but that didn't happen," he said. "I don't hold any grudges against anybody. I'm just asking for safer schools."

Selena Everson, who has three great-grandchildren in the Juneau schools, said, "The learning branch should be free of any tension, should be free of any hurt to a child."

Nancy Seamount, a teacher of health and student leadership, said her classes have been investigating the school culture at JDHS and will present some of their findings on March 2 and 3, classes to which the public is invited.

But Seamount said some Native parents may have experienced trauma at JDHS and may be reluctant to come to the building.

"It might be helpful if we had something spiritual - a truth and reconciliation service at the high school," with elders and spiritual leaders, she said. "It seems like there's a need for a large group of our people to heal before they feel comfortable coming into the building."

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