For some, the idea that racism is still prevalent in modern-day society is a preposterous idea. Slavery is over. Segregation is over. Equal opportunities seem to exist for everyone.
But Sirad Hassan, Crystal Yuille, and Amya Diggs know that is not the case, because they experienced it almost daily within the walls of each Frederick County Public School they attended.
Hassan and Yuille both graduated from Urbana High School within the last seven years. Diggs is entering her senior year at Walkersville High School. Each of them says students of color still experience racism within the school system.
For Diggs, it's been hearing "the n-word" uttered throughout halls and classrooms with no backlash. For Hassan, it was being educated by a curriculum that was Euro-centric and featured no Black authors or voices. For Yuille, it was a teacher telling her that some slaves were ok with their subjugation because their master was like their father.
“There are a ton of experiences that I've had that to this day makes me angry,” Yuille said.
All three women feel there has been a lack of effort to address these instances and those that still occur by both FCPS higher-ups and the Board of Education.
They're tired of asking others to make the change, so they're making it themselves.
Starting a Movement
It started with a petition penned by Hassan and Dayna Valek, a Catoctin High School graduate. The petition, a letter to FCPS staff and community members, demands a re-examination of how equity and diversity are handled within FCPS and asks the school system to implement anti-racist education.
Hassan, who graduated from Princeton University this past Spring, decided to create one for FCPS after seeing similar petitions for other school districts circulating online.
“[FCPS] must immerse students of all grades in complex historical discourse that highlights how racism and white privilege throughout the nation’s history has perpetuated many of the issues we see today,” the petition says.
It calls for specific initiatives such as hiring more staff and teachers of color, a third-party review of the FCPS curriculum, more training for staff about implicit bias, and discussions within classrooms about racial justice, white privilege, and movements such as Black Lives Matter.
As of Tuesday, Hassan and Valek’s letter had over 2,000 signatures of support.
Hassan said once the petition began circling online it received signatures quickly and from all groups of people including current middle schoolers and those who graduated FCPS in the 1970s. Those who signed also began sharing their own memories and experiences directly on the web page.
Seeing how impactful the petition was Hassan decided to take the effort one step further and create “End Racism FCPS," which is now formally organized and run primarily by people who signed the original letter.
Yuille and Diggs have since become more involved.
“The reason this [organization] is important to me is I think that FCPS consistently fails their students...they create an environment that’s toxic for a lot of people to go through,” Yuille said.
She hopes the town hall and the work “End Racism FCPS” is doing will open eyes to some of the racist microaggressions that students of color endure on a daily basis. These experiences may be small, but they are still wrong, Yuille said.
“I think oftentimes when people of color tell their experiences people don’t want to believe it or care until they hear about the worst of the worst,” she said. “I think every experience is valid and I think it speaks to the different experiences that people of color have to deal with in this school system and in this country.”
Lack of Effort
For Yuille, Hassan, and Diggs, FCPS and the Board of Education has failed to seriously address issues of inequality and racism in school buildings.
Hassan pointed to the Racial Equity Committee, which was approved last year by the Board, as a prime example of FCPS waiting years to address problems that have been occurring for decades.
“Because of COVID I do understand that there were things that were put on hold but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the committee literally was only established so recently,” Hassan said. “What have they been doing the rest of the time?”
Yuille agreed and said she is skeptical of such committees.
“In general, we see that racial equity committees tend to be used as a distraction to kind of appease folks and to try and convince them that something is being done when in reality there is no real effort to make things happen,” Yuille said.
Board Vice President Jay Mason said the Racial Equity Committee should have been formed sooner, but did not want to comment on directions by previous Board members.
“It was formed when it was formed,” Mason said.
Hassan said she doesn’t understand why she and others were able to come together and organize so quickly while the Racial Equity Committee has been slow-moving.
The pandemic put a delay in the committee’s work however they did recently elect officers at their June meeting, Mason said.
Hassan also said public comment at current Board meetings seems to be brushed aside due to time limits and meetings being held virtually. Currently, public comments are emailed to the Board and are read during the virtual meeting. However, not all the comments emailed in are always read.
Those that are not read are uploaded onto the Board of Education’s BoardDocs website.
“[The Board is] not really being transparent about the ways in which they are choosing who and what is going to be shared, and it kind of eliminates and strips the people’s power of being able to share their stories and experiences,” Hassan said.
This lack of a space to share concerns is what led to the town hall, which Hassan said will not have a time limit. Folks who wish to speak will sign up in advance and will not be restricted in terms of how long or what they want to speak about.
“This is our way of showing that this is how to have proper public testimony and public comment with your constituents,” Hassan said.
School Superintendent Terry Alban said in an email that it hurts to know that FCPS students have experienced racism and appreciates that Hassan and the other organizers have set a goal to end it.
Mason declined to comment specifically on “End Racism FCPS” but said he is glad students are speaking up about their experiences.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s being held, but it’s good that it’s being held. I think the community needs to hear what these students have gone through and having gone through some of this myself I completely understand how they feel,” Mason said.
Support is great, but action is critical, Hassan said.
“If [the Board is] really in support, they would stand fully behind what we are doing and they would stand fully behind committing to radical change...because what they’ve been doing is not enough,” she said.
In response to Hassan’s assertion that there is a lack of effort by the Board, Mason said it has taken steps such as creating an equity policy and forming the Racial Equity Committee.
“We are looking for every student to have a good experience in school. If they are not we need to do more,” Mason said.
Diggs agreed with Hassan and said she feels throughout her years as an FCPS student she has heard lots of talk from higher-ups but has not seen anything change.
“They’ve been talking for so long, when is the change actually going to happen? Part of what we’re doing is requiring them to hold themselves accountable whether they want to stand behind it or not,” Diggs said.
Besides the formation of the Racial Equity Committee FCPS has pointed to its work addressing the achievement gap as a step towards fixing inequalities that exist between white students and students of color.
The achievement gap refers to the disparity of academic success and performances between student groups. It often occurs between white students and students of color.
Alban told the New-Post in June that the effort to minimize the gap started five years ago with cultural proficiency work and training.
“Part of the reason we have an achievement gap isn't just because of the quality of instruction in the classroom. It's because of some of the implicit biases that we have,” Alban said. “And we knew that if you're going to address the achievement gap, you can't just change instruction. You also have to change mindset and attitudes.”
Yuille, however, said the achievement gap is a patronizing term and another way for the school system to ignore dealing with the actual problem of systemic racism and how institutions were designed to hinder students of color rather than benefit them.
“If we think about segregation, if we think about the way property taxes are set up to provide certain resources to different communities, if we think about the fact that students of color are disproportionately affected or punished for the same actions of their white peers then, of course, we see a difference in the level of achievement,” Yuille said. “But that’s not the problem, the problem is the system wasn’t designed for these students.”
The town hall is just the beginning. Hassan said she hopes the Board and FCPS will partner with “End Racism FCPS” to bring about actual change and new initiatives.
Alban said addressing such issues is a journey that FCPS is committed to being on, but that she is unsure if it can ever be fully tackled.
“I don't know if you ever really get to the final point where you can achieve that ultimate goal,” Alban said. “But I know if you're willing to be on that journey and ask yourself hard questions and to unpack your biases and to listen to others and try to understand, that's when you start really being able to work together to make a difference.”
Yuille, who left Frederick County immediately after graduation in order to disassociate with some of the negative experiences she endured, wants a full resolution so the racism that she faced in school is not allowed or normalized, she said.
Yuille said she will continue to work for change and thinks the town hall is a good first step but is skeptical of how much effort the school system and county are willing to put in.
“It would be wonderful to live in a world where I wouldn’t have to worry about students in FCPS...it would be really wonderful to see people show a concerted effort to care about kids of color,” Yuille said. “But that requires work and reflection and reconciliation and healing and I'm not sure the extent to which the institutions in Frederick are willing to do that.”