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District looks to solve school racism

ANB, ANS press for quick action in wake of recent anti-Native incidents

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

The Juneau School District is encouraging students to report racial incidents, and student leaders at Juneau-Douglas High School are speaking out against racism in the wake of recent anti-Native incidents at the school.

A derogatory sign in January and graffiti this month have brought to the fore long-standing concerns by Native students that they feel unwelcome and unsafe at JDHS.

District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said other racial incidents have occurred recently at JDHS, resulting in disciplinary action that has not been made public because of the confidentiality rights of students.

Adults and students are looking for answers.

About 35 people, many of them district administrators and teachers, attended a two-day training session last week on racism and healing that had been scheduled before the recent incidents. The Rev. Michael Oleksa, an Eastern Orthodox priest well known for his work on cross-cultural communication, is scheduled to speak to JDHS students and others on March 9 to 11. High school administrators are talking with Anchorage educators who developed a program to combat prejudice.

Native parents and teachers are concerned that racism is a factor in poor grades and a high dropout rate among Native students. Nearly two-thirds of Natives at JDHS leave school without graduating, compared with a quarter of whites, according to district figures.

"Our Native children can hardly wait until they turn 16 so they can leave high school," Selena Everson of the Alaska Native Sisterhood said.

Leonard John of the Kootznoowoo Cultural and Educational Foundation, said he graduated from JDHS in 1967, when racism also was very much alive.

"Graduated with a degree in my hand and shame all over it because of the way they treated me," he said.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood and ANS are pressing the district to quickly implement the ideas suggested by an ad hoc group of students and adults to deal with racism. ANB and ANS officers spoke to district officials at a public meeting Friday night at the district's central office.

"We understand it's not going to shut down in a day," said Don Bremner of ANB. "What we are looking for from the administration is a plan."

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, said the district should hire a human rights officer, who can respond to incidents quickly and let the public know how they were handled.

"We are trying to tell you how to do your job," Worl told district administrators. "You are supposed to be telling us how you are going to deal with racism in the school."

The district has a strong policy against harassment, Cowan said. JDHS Principal Deb Morse said the school reviews the student handbook, including that policy, with students each year. The school also has a grievance procedure for students and parents who don't feel an incident was handled correctly.

"At this point, the policy is strong," Cowan said. "It's the communication of our policy that we need to improve."

The ad hoc group's petition said the district needs a clear and well-known system for students to report harassment. The petition also calls for zero tolerance of racism, fair and equal treatment of students involved in racial incidents, training of staff and students in how to prevent racism, activities that promote understanding of diversity, and immediate responses to racial incidents.

Native students have said they feel that school authorities suspend Natives more readily than non-Natives, and that teachers don't always respond to reports of harassment, Doloresa Cadiente of ANS said.

Brad Fluetsch, ANB Grand Camp treasurer, said he wants to see immediate suspensions of students involved in racial incidents, with the students' names and punishments made public as a deterrent.

"If it all happens behind closed doors, nobody knows it happens," he said. "The other potential offenders don't know the consequences of the actions."

The schools, like the state's juvenile justice system, follow confidentiality laws that protect the privacy of youths. Not only the offenders' names, but even the details of the punishment won't be made public, district officials have said.

The idea is to promote the restoration of youthful offenders to the community without a stigma. But the unintended side effects are justice isn't seen to have occurred, and the punishment doesn't serve as a deterrent to others.

"I think the prevention is not going to be through punishment," Cowan said. "I think the prevention is going to be through understanding."

Students have taken some steps to change the racial atmosphere at JDHS. The student government has met with Native students from the Tlingit-Haida Central Council youth leadership group.

The students are putting up signs in the halls to discourage racism, with messages such as "The color of my skin shouldn't matter," and "Don't tolerate the KAN. It's not right." The acronym KAN has popped up in graffiti recently. Students say it means Kids Against Natives or Kill All Natives.

But other students tear down the signs, said Angelica Lim, vice president of the Associated Student Body. "Kids are tearing them down, and we're just going to put them back up," she said.

The JDHS faculty has met to discuss the racial issue, and students said more teachers are talking about it in class.

"In a way, that kind of helps," said student council sophomore representative Kokii Stekoll in an interview. "The Alaska Native voices are heard among other kids."

Stekoll believes that Natives are telling the truth about harassment, but racial comments at JDHS run both ways, she said. Some non-Natives are afraid to walk through the halls at the Marie Drake building, where Native students congregate.

"It's scary to some kids to walk through those hallways, because if you bump into one of the Alaska Natives they yell at you. The racism problem is on both sides," she said.

At a training session on racism and healing Wednesday and Thursday in Juneau, Jesse Arrington and Mae Marsh of the Fairbanks company Transformations showed participants how to recognize racism and address it. Change comes from within and doesn't happen overnight, they said.

The seeds of prejudice can be planted early, teachers said. A teacher said he heard a first-grader use the word "gay" as a slur.

Arrington and Marsh said the schools need to talk openly about racism, and teachers and students need to intervene, without causing a conflict, when someone makes a racist comment. People need to form friendships with people from other cultures and ethnic groups, to break down stereotypes, they said.

In an interview at the training session, Libby Parker, the freshman vice president of the student council, said many students want to be part of a clique "so they're willing to shed that (nonracist) part of their beliefs or morals even if it's not right."

As time goes on, students are imitating earlier acts of racism, she said.

"As more and more people start following, it gets harder and harder to stand up," Parker said.

Schools have to look at ways they segregate students, the trainers said.

At JDHS, the Marie Drake building is known among students as "the brown school" because it houses programs with a disproportionately large percentage of Natives. The district is considering moving the alternative high school, which also has a larger than average number of Native students, to Marie Drake.

Teachers should base their academic expectations of students on their individual abilities, not on ethnic stereotypes, the trainers said. They should teach tolerance in class. Courses should treat minority cultures as an integrated part of the curriculum, not as "sidebars." In other words, black history is American history.

"We need to give our kids hope," said parent Elsa Demeksa. "We need to say to them: We know there is hurt, but it's not always going to be that way. We cannot allow it to be that way.

"This is a wonderful community. We need to acknowledge our differences, but also know we have the same goals for our kids. We want our kids to be successful. If we don't create a safe learning environment for them, they will not be successful."

JDHS is a physical environment, like a piece of land.

"We took this land from them," Stekoll said. " ... We've always stripped them from their land, and it seems like we're still doing that."

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



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