Black and Brown Students and Parents Demand D219 Address Racism, End Racist Practices

Parents+and+students+gather+together+to+demand+D219+to+end+its+racist+practices.

Alma Duskic

Parents and students gather together to demand D219 to end its racist practices.

By Alli Lipsit, Niles West High School

Community members gathered for a press conference and demanded an end to racist practices in District 219 on Tuesday, Jan. 12 outside of the district administration building. Included in the group were former district employees, parents from the community, the president of Evanston’s chapter of the NAACP, and current Niles North and Niles West students.

Jasmine Sebaggala, parent of two Black children in Skokie schools, presented demands for district administration and school board.

“We demand a solid sustainable equity and inclusion plan that includes restorative practices which incorporates and validates the experiences of Black and Brown students. We demand our Black and Brown students to be safe, welcomed, celebrated, represented, and valued in our schools. We demand a plan to remove the barriers to education for Black and Brown students by de-tracking and revising grading policies. We demand an equity audit and revision of D219’s Eurocentric curriculum that erases the contributions of native, Black, and Brown people. We demand that you hire and support Black and Brown staff,” Sebaggala said.

Niles West junior Londyn LaVallias spoke about her experiences being disciplined as a Black student.

“From the classroom to the athletic department, I’ve always felt unwanted,” LaVallias said. LaVallias went on to describe her experiences with Niles West’s School Resource Officer, a role that has come under public scrutiny. After a physical altercation with another student, LaVallias ended up in court.

From the classroom to the athletic department, I’ve always felt unwanted.”

— Londyn LaVallias, Niles West Junior

“I felt like my dean didn’t know me as a person and made the poor decision to contact the SRO. Nobody understood or even cared about how I was feeling. I was belittled and scolded by the SRO. My dean ignored my requests to speak to my counselor and my parents. They acted as if this was something I was accustomed to, but I was worried and scared about what my parents would think and about going to court for the first time,” LaVallias said.

Makayla Sutton, a junior at Niles North, recalled student reactions to a Black History Month assembly during the 2019-2020 school year. During a dance performance, text messages circulated around the school, using racist and vulgar language towards the performers. The students who wrote those messages were subsequently suspended from school.

“Our staff thought a couple days vacation would kill the situation, that it could have been easily been forgotten,” Sutton said. “We organized a walk-out. We protested administration taking the easy way out. We told other stories of in-school racial problems: how non-Black students throw around the n-word, and how security and teachers pay closer attention to Black students and are quick to single us out.”

The mother of two Black and Mexican children in Niles West feeder District 72, Roxanne Salgado, also addressed concerns about student safety and affirmation, specifically for Black and Brown students.

“I’m here today because I want my children and all the children in my community to feel physically safe and socially unharmed, emotionally supported and culturally affirmed. Unfortunately, those expectations are not being met at District 219. The needs of Black and Brown students have consistently been dismissed and ignored,” Salgado said.

According to Salgado, this is not the first time parents have voiced concerns to district leadership.

“The superintendent and the school board have received over 150 public comments demanding explanation, response, and action to dismantle systemic racism, institutionalized anti-Blackness, and white supremacy. The school board’s only Latinx member [Vice President Jill Manrique], as well as the district’s Chief Equity Officer [Dr. La Wanna Wells], have been the only individuals who have responded to our requests,” Salgado said.

Salgado also addressed the short-lived display of a Black Lives Matter sign outside of Niles West last August. The sign was allegedly removed after complaints from community members about the school taking a position on a divisive political issue.

“Instead of standing with our black and brown students after the public lynching of Mr. George Floyd in Minnesota, and the anti-black emails that were sent to the whole entire student body, District 219  leadership caved decided to play it safe by not standing up against the racism and bigotry within their own community,” Salgado said.

A parent in the Fairview district, Angela Sangha-Gadsden, outlined the requests that she and her group made to District 219 regarding discipline data. Through the Freedom of Information Act, they requested data on student court referrals, disaggregated by demographics (race, ethnicity, gender, and grade level). In-school discipline data, such as detentions and suspensions during the last five years, was also requested. According to Sanga-Gadsden, the district responded that it does not maintain, and is not required to maintain disaggregated data about referrals to the court system. She also said that disclosed disciplinary data from 2015-2020 suggested that Hispanic students comprised about 15% of the District 219 population, yet they made up nearly a quarter of all infractions in the district. Black students comprised eight percent of the District 219 population, but totaled 13- 21 percent of infractions.

In her closing remarks, parent Jasmine Sebaggala “urge[ed] Dr. Isoye and the D219 board to step down and make room for true equity leadership if they are unable or not willing to transform D219 into an equitable institution.”

We recognize we still have much to learn and much to do, and we know we have to be deliberate and purposeful, and to listen to what our families of color are telling us.”

— Dr. Steven Isoye, Superintendent

The school board is supporting various programs designed ensure a welcoming and equitable community. In the regularly scheduled board meeting which followed the press conference, Chief Equity Officer Dr. La Wanna Wells presented an update on the district’s equity initiatives. According to Superintendent Dr. Steven Isoye, Wells’s overview detailed “programs and actions that the district is already working on to make D219 a more equitable place for everyone.”

Some of these programs include Anti-Bias Training, Anti-Racism/Anti-racist Policy, AVID, Classrooms 1st (CFC), Curriculum and Technology (Equity) Coaching, and more, as explained in this overview, which was also included as part of Dr. Wells’s remarks to the board.

According to a statement from District 219, “The Evanston/North Shore Branch of the NAACP had not contacted us before the press conference. We were not aware of the specific concerns and demands that were brought up. Dr. Isoye has reached out to the president of the local NAACP to meet so we can learn more. That being said, we heard in last night’s public comments that members of the school community have been bringing up specific problems and concerns for months that have not been specifically addressed at Public Board of Education meetings.”

Dr. Isoye added, “We recognize we still have much to learn and much to do, and we know we have to be deliberate and purposeful, and to listen to what our families of color are telling us.”

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Editor in Chief Alma Duskic contributed to this story.

This story was originally published on NWNews on January 15, 2021.