Education

Batavia students, parents and faculty share candid stories of racism, homophobia in school

Batavia High School.

BATAVIA — Students, parents and faculty members took to the podium to address racist, homophobic and transphobic experiences at Batavia Public Schools during the public comment portion of the Dec. 21 school board meeting.

“When I first started attending JB Nelson [Elementary School] in fourth grade, I was often made fun of,” Batavia High School senior Kristina Baker said. “Many teachers and students will often belittle Black students quite frequently.”

Baker said multiple racially charged incidents occurred during her time at Batavia schools, including a recent one in which an Instagram account called “BHS Black People” was used to belittle students of color at the high school.

“It was pretty much making fun of people and using Black stereotypes as a joke,” Baker said. “No one who liked or commented or even followed the account was punished because of the [BHS] handbook, since it never directly addresses the punishments that people who participate in actions like that should receive.”

Another speaker was Alexis Porter, a Black high school student who said she recently received a threat of racial violence.

“I am the kid that got told they were going to be lynched,” Porter said. “Not only do I have to see this student every day, he smiles and laughs at me as if it’s ok.”

Batavia Public School District 101 Superintendent Lisa Hichens said administration at the high school has since followed up on all of the comments about racial harassment presented at the meeting.

In an email, she said that “the students who spoke at the board meeting are to be commended for their bravery.”

“We are proud of them for having the courage to share their stories with the hopes of making improvements in the district,” she said. “The Batavia High School administration has followed up appropriately on all of the incidents, although not all of the offenses had been reported to them prior to the school board meeting. This is evidence that there is still work to do to make it a safe place for students to talk about the racial issues that they are facing.”

Students and parents also spoke about homophobia and transphobia in the schools.

“A couple months ago I was in class, and I was hearing a bunch of slurs going around,” Batavia High School parent Violeta Shar said. “At first I heard a bunch of sexuality slurs. I kneeled to take off my pride pin because I was so afraid of what would happen.”

Another parent said she “questions almost every day” why she keeps her kids in Batavia schools.

“It has been a second job ensuring that my children are treated fairly, feel validated about their history and identity, and to make sure that they know other culture’s beliefs and perspectives, as this is not what they experienced in their elementary years or their middle school years or their high school years.

“When are you going to examine your policies, practices and procedures to ensure that you are leading and teaching for equity,” said Batavia parent Jennifer Roe.

Batavia High School teachers who spoke at the meeting described their concerns that students of color were not coming to them for help.

“I’ve been here for eight years, and I have never seen as many racially motivated incidents as I have seen in this one semester alone,” Batavia High School teacher Molly Jackson-Schultz said. “At the high school, students have confided in me about racial slurs being thrown around, feeling like they aren’t represented in our curriculum or being poorly represented when they are, and even physical fights that are motivated by race.”

Jackson-Schultz says that many students of color have stopped bringing up their concerns entirely after receiving little help from faculty.

“Our students of color are hurting and that’s unacceptable,” Jackson-Schultz said.

Hichens said when dealing with cases of online harassment targeted at students, the district works directly with social media providers to take down posts and accounts.

“When posts and accounts are anonymous, we work with the social media provider to have the posts removed,” Hichens said. “This process takes time, but we have been successful in getting accounts and posts deleted. Parents can assist with the online issues by having conversations with their children about the content that they are engaging with on social media.”

Concerns about racial inequity in the district had been brought up at prior school board meetings.

“Racial diversity among school administrators and school faculty in Batavia does not yet adequately reflect the diversity of our student population,” Sue Sokolinski, a retired Batavia educator, said at the Nov. 16 school board meeting. “Research shows that diversity in schools, including racial diversity among teachers, can provide significant benefits to all students.”

Just over 20% of Batavia High School’s student body is comprised of students of color, according to Illinois Report Card.

“Nothing breaks my heart more than to hear just one student who doesn’t feel supported, understood or safe when they come to our schools,” Batavia Education Association President Todd Swanson said. “It is truly disheartening to hear about the occurrences I’ve been hearing about.”

Swanson brought up an email from Hichens to district staff highlighting specific areas of equity improvement, such as student-based budgeting, revamping school fees and elementary supplies and the expansion of clubs and activities.

The letter also discussed the progress of a new committee comprised of students and faculty made to examine the district’s leaning environment, inclusiveness and culture. The committee is expected to release their findings in February.

“This fall, the Board assembled a team of students, parents and staff with diverse backgrounds, experiences and expertise,” Hichens said. “The team is reviewing data around the Board’s strategic priorities including the cultivation of a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students.”

School Board members are prohibited by their rules from directly engaging with speakers during the public comment portion of the meetings, but multiple Board members addressed the conversations just before the meeting adjourned.

“We hear that you’re looking for action and that you’re looking for a response,” Batavia Public School Board President Cathy Dremel said. “That’s going to be something we are working on. We do want you to know that you’ve been heard and we’re attempting to move forward with all of these concerns.”

“It’s difficult work, it’s important work and we’re taking it very seriously,” School Board Vice President Erin Meitzler said.

A full list of the district’s bullying, harassment and intimidation guidelines can be found here.