One on west side of the media center at Liberty School, seated behind at the dais, sat at the Saline Board of Education. It was nearly three hours into a long, frustrating meeting. Board president Heidi Pfannes had struggled to quiet a large audience which had grown impatient as they waited for the second round of public comment.
As the second round of public comment began, a group of Saline students and community members rose from their chairs, walked to the podium area, lined up and linked arms.
Facing off against Board of Education and district administration, the group, calling themselves Society for Student Resistance, angrily and emotionally addressed the board and issued demands.
Student Sunny Seo-Hyun Jun told the board that things have gotten worse for people of color since a Snapchat video loaded with racist slurs, slogans and images posted by Saline High School students was made public Jan. 26. The situation in the schools has been tense - and despite all the attention on issues of race, things have gotten worse, she said.
“The past few days and weeks have been hard. We have so many people who target us and, hilariously, racism has increased for us ever since,” Jun said. “We stand up for each other because we are proud of what we stand for and we will never be quiet.”
Saline student Dru Campbell told the board it was disrespectful to ask students, who are busy with homework, jobs and extracurricular activities, to wait nearly three hours to give public comment. Then he and fellow senior Karamba Kaba stood to issue the students’ demands.
“I’m just making this clear, these are our demands. They are not what we are asking for. This is what we are telling you we need,” Campbell told the board.
Kaba agreed and demanded change.
“We want this now. I’m not going to have my little sister walk through the school and not feel safe. I go through this every day, as a black man,” Kaba said, voice rising. “We’re not asking you guys, we’re demanding it.”
The demands included:
Collaborating with students and the community to develop a plan to support healing and positive mental health for all marginalized students.
Implementing a policy, within 4-6 weeks, which holds students and staff accountable for hate speech.
Hiring a more diverse staff, striking a task force to ensure diversity, and annual reporting on these efforts.
Mandating, within the next two weeks, that all district employees receive training around anti-oppression and culturally-sustaining teaching.
Mandating and integrating culturally-responsive curriculum.
Developing a stronger mechanism for reporting hate speech and bullying.
Developing a plan for celebrating marginalized and staff identities.
Public comment continued after Kaba and Campbell issued the students’ demands.
Student Regan Cox noted that the Saline Area Schools Compass, a document and symbol that guides the district, references collaboration. But, she said, students don’t feel as if they are being heard engaged on the issue of racism. Cox told the board students were willing to work toward change and challenged trustees to join the students.
Another student told the board members they had the power craft policies to enact change. Student Abby Berwick said students have been told that change is happening, but she said students don’t see it.
“I know you say, ‘Oh, we’re listening,’ but we haven’t seen action,” Berwick said. “You have to disclose what’s going on, because what we’re seeing? We’re not seeing anything. It’s intent vs. impact. You may intend to help us, but we don’t see it.”
Berwick told the board students planned to use the media to keep the pressure on for change.
“The media is watching and I know that you all care about what the media thinks. That’s an issue in itself, but if that’s what it takes to make change, then we’ll use the media,” Berwick said.
Berwick told the board the students’ anger was a “tidal wave, long been coming.”
Cameron Crawford told the board that instead of being proud to attend one of the best school districts in the state, the situation has left him with a bad taste his mouth.
“I’m ashamed to be part of a school district that made national news just because of racist remarks,” Cameron said.
He told the board students are frustrated by a lack of transparency around the issue, but, he said, that hasn’t stopped them from taking action.
“Students have taken the most initiative in bringing about change. We’ve discussed the issue in classrooms, we’ve grieved and we’ve chosen to do something about it,” Crawford said. “We’ve proposed numerous solutions tonight, I recommend you listen to every single one of them.”
One of the speakers was Mark Kirkland, an African American whose daughter attends Saline High School. He told board he didn’t think he’d have to stand up at a meeting talking about racism in 2020. But, he said, his daughter was very upset to see students “high fiving” each other in the halls when one of the suspended students returned to class.
Saline teacher Mark Hamilton stepped to the podium and said the students had said everything he wanted to say. Instead, he said, he wanted to use his three minutes at the podium and have people share their love for each other. The students began hugging each other. Several approached the board table to greet Board Trustee Susan Estep and student representative Evan Thomas.