Kirkwood, we are the problem


Sophia Beckmann

Protestors walk up Chopin street during the June 6 peace walk.

By Genevieve Francois, Kirkwood High School

Feet move down the street in unison. “No justice, no peace!” soars through the air. Signs with Black fists dot the skyline like clouds. On June 6, 2020, Kirkwood streets were filled with supported protesters, whereas on Sept. 18, 2017, students were told they would be punished.

This summer, Kirkwood Teachers of Color (KTOC) organized a march for the Black Lives Matter movement. For the first time, white members of Kirkwood and surrounding counties showed up in large groups to support the Black community. But three years ago, a group consisting mostly of Kirkwood’s Black students protested alone. So what exactly has changed? Not much. 

The 2017 protest took place after the verdict of Jason Stockley’s case. Stockley, a white police officer, was declared not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man in Florissant, after planting a gun in the man’s car. The verdict set off protests throughout St. Louis City and County. When Black students simply wanted to march to say their lives mattered, they were told they were not allowed. What suddenly caused a community like Kirkwood to get involved, and is what they did enough? 

In 2016, Kirkwood’s dirty laundry hung out to dry after a student did Blackface at school. When brought to the attention of staff black students were told by a staff member racism does not exist in Kirkwood. Despite attempts of denial, racism still flourishes within our town. Unlike others, I have not been able to reject its existence. I’ve been called the N-word to my face and my hair has been pulled like a toy. I have been told “All Black girls are ugly,” “You are smart for a Black girl” and asked if I can swim.

All black girls are ugly.”

It does not come as a surprise that sweeping situations under the rug is a preferred method when handling our racial issues. According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch estimates of the 2020 school year, about 87% of KSD is white, meaning that a large percentage of our population go about their daily lives without being whipped in the face by racism. 

While Black voices have screamed beneath the chains of white picket fences, Kirkwood has proceeded to breeze on by. But for students, such as alumni Sha’Diya Tomlin, this pattern of denying Black students the right to feel is devastating. 

“As a black girl, Kirkwood is not a welcoming environment,” Tomlin said, not expecting such extreme levels of racism when coming to Kirkwood. “I knew white people could be racist. I knew that people would not like me because of the color of my skin. But I did not know that it could come in the form of them talking about my hair or them even daring to say the N-word around me.” 

As hard as it is to believe these are not isolated incidents, I had very similar experiences during my time at Kirkwood. In AP US History, I had a teacher give a lesson in which a t-chart compared slavery and school. I immediately mentioned to the teacher that slaves would have been killed for any attempts at learning. He, now annoyed, quickly shut me down in order to continue with his lesson plan. When I eventually went to administration, we had a somewhat beneficial meeting. During the meeting my mother tried to give the teacher a book about teaching Black students, he claimed, “I don’t really have time to read that right now.”

I don’t really have time for that right now. ”

Many like to blame the lack of diversity within the KHS staff as the cause of the systemic racism within the district. Tomlin only had one Black teacher in her high school experience. According to the TKC 2018 article “Diversity,” 31.5% of KHS students said the same. 

Kirkwood has taken steps in order to fix that. This past spring Nikole Shurn was elected to the school board as its second Black woman ever to run. KSD has also made attempts to increase diversity within the teaching staff with events such as the Minority Recruitment Fair. Despite the desire for increased diversity, there will always be white teachers within schools. 

Depending on non-white teachers to connect with non-white students is not the answer. As a teacher you should have time for your Black students. We are not your burden to carry. It has often been Kirkwood’s Black community who has borne the backbreaking weight. Tomlin felt she had the job to inform peers and teachers often during her time at Kirkwood.

“They really do put the responsibility on us to educate them,” Tomlin, sophomore at Missouri State University, said. “There is no reason why a teacher should not be able to communicate with a Black student in the classroom.”

Shurn feels positive in terms of the direction the school district is headed. Shurn mentioned that one of the many resources currently offered is a book study open to KSD staff on “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. She emphasized how the district will continue to advocate for racial equity. 

“We did the Peace the Walk. We did the Juneteenth Read Aloud. We can not half do it we have to be all in,” Shurn said.  “I am a Kirkwood grad, and I know how Kirkwood was when I was there. I want to make sure my kids and other kids have the same opportunity.”

Kirkwood staff members such as Principal Dr. Michael Havener also recognize that we must do more to move forward. Despite how positive the walk was what we choose to do with this wave of energy determines our future.

“The walk is a great thing,” Havener said. “But now what?”

Well, in addition to the book study mentioned by Shurn the district has begun a wave of change with the forming of parent equity groups beyond the elementary school. There is also an equity speaker series being posted weekly on Tuesdays to the KSD website. After reviewing the curriculum, KSD is working to make the content more inclusive for grades K-12. In addition, diversity training was finally made mandatory for all teachers this year. Previously, some teachers had to go to diversity training as a result of racially insensitive situations that took place at school while others attended by choice. 

Yes Kirkwood, thousands of us walked together. It was something we have never done before. This moment in our history was not meant for your Instagram. Your black square was not enough. Your marching was not enough. Our lives, income, healthcare, prison reform, voting suppression and treatment by police are in jeopardy.

This story was originally published on The Kirkwood Call on September 8, 2020.