By Parker Simpson
On April 16, a student at Old Rochester Regional High School made a racist video and uploaded it to TikTok. The video, set to upbeat music, called Black people monkeys and referenced the racist stereotype of Black people liking fried chicken. It went semi-viral, got reported, and was taken down — but not before being recorded and reuploaded to Twitter and other social media, and not before people in the Tri-Town took notice.
TikTok has become extremely popular for people of all ages. Users of the social media app can upload 15-60 second videos, usually that follow a particular format and use a pre-recorded audio, and share them with the world. However, TikTok has been having problems with racism on their platform; recently, a white couple were expelled from their respective schools after their TikTok, in which they spew racist stereotypes and repeatedly use racial slurs, went hugely viral on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. And, of course, we have our own example of online racism, against which public backlash from community members and students alike was swift and severe.
Jendell Teixeira, a student activist known for her strong stances against racism at Old Rochester, was one of the people who first noticed and reported the video. Last year, Teixeira’s article in Paw Prints, “An Open Letter to the Old Rochester Community,” called attention to the continual racism she has faced from elementary school to her senior year. In her Facebook post calling out the TikTok, she says, “I’m literally trying to hold back the tears because after all the work we’ve put in to try and change things it’s still the same stuff.”
This event comes just a year after students on Old Rochester’s hockey team allegedly spat on an opponent from Wareham and called him a racial slur. While it has been reported that one or both of these students were from Fairhaven High, as the ORR hockey team has members from both schools, the actions on the ice are still fresh in many people’s minds.
Principal Michael Devoll sent out an email to parents and students about the TikTok on April 28th. He “condemn[ed] the content of the video and acknowledge[d] the pain that it has caused,” and said that the student had apologized for the video. He went on to assure the community that “we are planning specific remote learning activities that reinforce the need to remain respectful both in person and online.”
On May 26, the first of the high school’s planned activities rolled out. On that day, students received an assignment from their Social Studies teachers to view a 2009 TED Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and respond to one of three questions. Mr. Devoll said he has “been able to read the responses through social studies classes and [has] been impressed with many student reflections.”
The TED Talk focused on the importance of having multiple and diverse perspectives in classrooms and media. According to Mr. Allain, an English teacher who has used the TED Talk in classes in the past, “[Adichie’s TED Talk] opens students up to the idea that we are all susceptible to implicit bias. Adichie is particularly successful in explaining this concept because she not only discusses how she has been hurt by implicit bias, but that she has been shaped by her own implicit biases as well."
At 6pm that same day, members of the Junior High and High School joined a Zoom call hosted by Principal Devoll, Assistant Superintendent Michael Nelson, and two members of Diversity Talks, an organization that provides student-led education about diversity and inclusion. Although the call was originally slated to be mandatory for both the Junior High and the High School, the requirement for Junior High participation was eventually dropped. The Zoom call was 30 minutes long, and Latina student speaker Nayelie Viera of East Providence High School discussed issues including code-switching, microaggressions, and casual racism on the part of both students and staff. According to Mr. Devoll, this was a continuation of staff training that was administered earlier this year, which had also utilized Diversity Talks.
“I think that the topics it covered [are] a good start for our school,” said one student reflecting on the call. “By continuing this conversation in our school community, ORR could be a much more safe and tolerant place.”
Mr. Apperson, World History and AP Research teacher, commented, “I am glad that the high school has begun to take steps to address the persistent problem of racism in our community. I hope that we can use this as a starting point and that we can continue to work together not just as a school, but with our local community to improve our collective understanding of issues surrounding race and equity.” He went on to say, “When even one person is underserved, it is the responsibility of us all to act to make the necessary changes.”
Many students, however, do not think that Old Rochester’s response was enough. Jendell Texeira stated, “That racist Tik Tok video should have sparked major changes immediately and I don’t think it was handled the way I or anyone else who was offended by that video wanted. I still don’t think the administration has taken racism seriously, I will believe it when I see it and those assigned diversity talks didn’t do anything for me.”
People also remarked that while “[the administration] actually did go through the effort to get a woman of color to speak… they didn’t get a black speaker to speak about black issues.” This is a big issue for Black activists, who face unique struggles in America that other people of color do not. While it is important to have inter-racial unity, asking a Latina woman to speak about ORR’s recent, primarily anti-Black racism is both unfair to the speaker and to Black community members.
Payton Lord, a rising senior who is currently Vice President of the Class of 2021 Student Council and a SERSAC representative for Old Rochester, said that while she felt that “putting a face to a situation is very helpful [and] the stories shared by the speaker were definitely some [she’d] witnessed at ORR… In [her] opinion, those that mindfully watched and listened were those with no past of racism or ingrained racist beliefs.” This is a problem with all remote-learning activities that schools across the nation have been trying to solve, but it has special importance when it is related to conversations about race.
These concerns about the effectiveness of ORR’s diversity education seem to be well-founded. In late May, just days after the Zoom session, yet another racist post was uploaded by a student at Old Rochester Junior High. An open letter to the Old Rochester School Committee by the community group Tritown Against Racism addressed both the latest instance of racism and the school’s lackluster responses to past instances of bigotry. The post, which was uploaded to Facebook on May 31, asked of the committee, “How many racist incidents must happen for you to put a zero tolerance policy throughout all schools within the district?”
Sophia Sousa, a rising senior, had this to say about the school’s response to racist actions in the past and present: “Combatting racism needs to be an ongoing, continuous conversation. Not just something that happens when a scandal pops up.”
Concerns about Old Rochester’s ability to act on bigotry stem from years of incidents occurring without adequate repercussions. Marginalized students have long felt uncomfortable in classes where teachers don’t respond to open prejudice, don’t consider their needs in class, and feel free to parrot harmful stereotypes. Continuing her quote from earlier, Payton Lord added, “At our school, acts of racism are not uncommon; however, action and administrative action are rare. [I see] my peers speak and act in ways that are… disgusting... yet [they] receive little to no disciplinary action. High school is a place in which students should learn how to act in the real world, and a school that falls short in teaching lessons around race simply fuels the problem.”
Another student, rising senior Jaeda Lopes, said that in her opinion, the TikTok and the school’s response was reflective of ORR’s culture as a whole. “This absolutely represents the way ORR has always done nothing but give a slap on the wrist for racist and ignorant behavior. This is what finally got their attention... Not when I was told to ‘go to New Bedford to be with other brown people’ if I was ‘that unhappy at Old Rochester’ by a substitute teacher. Not when my friend would report being called the n word with a hard r. Not when I would be bullied online and harassed out of classes for speaking out. Not when staff members joked about needing bullet proof vests going to a basketball game at Wareham. It was only when a white student’s future was hurt.”
She also shared that “I didn’t write this with the intentions of hurting anyone... I’m simply frustrated with the lack of effort put in. I’m well aware how a white male cannot understand what it’s like to be black. That’s why I wish our voices were heard when we first said how to correct the behavior, years and years ago.”
When asked about what he thinks ORR has been doing well to start creating an anti-racist environment, Mr. Devoll said, “I think the fact that we are talking about these issues is a great start. In the past, we may not have brought things to light.” He went on to discuss how “we have tried to better support students through the opportunity to start clubs and organizations as well as offering opportunities to speak at staff meetings across the school district. We have spent four years working on our selections in literature to include more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] authors.” However, he also recognises that “there is no social change fairy [and] there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Since the protests surrounding George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police have swept the country and the world, Old Rochester’s administration has issued several statements regarding race and racism within our community. They have been met with mixed reactions; some members of the community applaud Old Rochester’s steps toward racial justice, while others want to see action behind the words.
What can Old Rochester’s administration do better? “Reach out to the community for assistance and be more clear with everyone about what they’re doing for the racism issue at this school,” said one student.
In several correspondences, Principal Devoll has said that there is a five-year plan in place for addressing racism and inequity at ORR, and that we are currently on year 3 of this plan. According to Mr. Devoll, “Some of the intended outcomes [of the five-year plan] include Global Awareness... Personal Responsibility… [and] Empathy.” These goals involve implementing a diverse curriculum that includes a wide range of voices, creating a culture of respect between students, and providing continued student and professional development.
On June 15, a special school committee meeting was held at the request of TriTown Against Racism, a newly-founded grassroots organization that was developed to address racism within the TriTown. During this meeting three longtime residents of the TriTown, who founded the aforementioned group, shared stories of racism that students at Old Rochester and other district schools had experienced. They also discussed how Old Rochester might do better as a community and as a school to combat the issues we face.
According to Ms. Hall, an English teacher who has worked on developing diversity teacher trainings at the school, “Ms. Barker and I decided to address [the marginalization of underrepresented populations at Old Rochester] head on, running two courses over the past two summers addressing issues of equity in the curriculum - one focused specifically on students of color, the other on LGBTQ representation in the curriculum. Ms. Barker and I also worked to run several mini-trainings throughout the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, often incorporating students in the presentation. Unfortunately, all of these trainings were optional, so we were only reaching a small portion of the staff.”
Although Principal Devoll gave Ms. Barker and Ms. Hall a two-hour mandatory staff training, Ms. Hall says that it was “not enough” to cover all of the material. However, she says she and Ms. Barker are “excited that both students and community members are pushing to make equity a priority at the high school. Equity needs to be at the heart of everything that we do for change to happen.”
Micheal Nelson, the rising superintendent for our district, said “[W]e acknowledge that we have had our own struggles with racism or racist acts. These actions go against everything our schools’ mission and values stand for. As we move forward - we will need everyone’s help and commitment in relation to this work. We will continue to take action and hold ourselves individually and mutually accountable.”
One final note: many of my student sources in this article have chosen to remain anonymous, and for several it’s because they fear retribution or reproach from the school. There should not be such a culture of fear around reporting racism, other forms of bigotry, or complicity in creating an unsafe environment at our school. I encourage my fellow students to write letters to the editor to share their opinions on ORR’s culture surrounding racism. Letters can be addressed to our editors or Mr. Allain at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org.