Community grapples with racist video while administrative response is bound by federal law



A listening session was hosted by administrators during lunch on Friday, Feb. 18 in room 385 following a racist video that circulated the community. Many seats were empty at the beginning of the lunch block before a stream of students filled the room by the time it was second lunch.

Room 385 was full of students sharing heartfelt testimonies at a listening-session hosted by administrators during lunch on Friday, Feb. 18. The space was created in the wake of a Snapchat video in which a student used a southern accent and said, “I f****ing hate *n-word*s.”

The video was first posted on the student’s public story on Oct. 22; a student recorded the story before the video was taken down shortly thereafter, the student who recorded the video and a student close to the incidents told the Sagamore. The recording of the Snapchat story was sent to a group chat of six people who decided, because of pressure from the student in the video, not to send it out to others or bring it to administrators, the sources said. On Feb. 9, a student who was in possession of the video decided to release it to more people.

“{My friend} decided that {they’re} done protecting {the student in the video},” the student who recorded the video said.

The video was then circulated within the school community and was brought to administrators the next day.

The listening session, the first of many that administrators plan to host, offered a space for students, especially students of color, to share their experiences in the school community and offer thoughts and ideas for addressing racial injustice and disparities.

As a talking piece was passed around the room, nearly every student present shared feeling frustrated, hurt, confused, disappointed, or some combination. Their responses were directed at the content of the video itself, the administrative response and student experiences in the school community more broadly. Students also called for a range of disciplinary actions for the student in the video.

Echoed around the room was the sentiment that students of color don’t feel comfortable in the school community. Junior Nikita Bright-Reason, who attended the listening session, said afterwards she has been angry at the school and town for a while and has had to learn to deal with her emotions and seek support from her family and trusted adults.

“{The video was} a slap in the face to the whole community of color, specifically the African-American community. Being at a predominantly white school and being a student of color, it’s stressful,” Bright-Reason said. “{I} kind of lost hope in this school when I became a freshman, just in this town, because I’ve heard about racist stuff happening and I’ve never heard about any student getting kicked out for any of this type of thing or getting any real consequences. I think that just needs to change.”

Associate Dean Karim Azeb, who facilitated the session, said the disconnect between what administrators are doing and what students perceive administrators to be doing adds to a lot of frustration for students. According to Azeb, this disconnect is complicated by administrators’ inability to share disciplinary details of the incident due to federal law, which states that a student’s disciplinary records must be kept private under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Dean of Student Support Systems Brian Poon said beyond the legal aspect, he believes this policy is ethical.

“If we started sharing private records of students that would get us into a significant amount of trouble,” Poon said. “That’s been my practice for the 18 years I’ve been a dean, but I don’t know what the legal grounding is. I will tell you that regardless of the legality of it, I do think it’s ethical.”

Several students said they were angry and tired by the frequency of incidents like this, referencing another racist video in 2017 and other alleged racist incidents. This year has also seen four swastikas discovered around the school, skits that employed hurtful stereotypes and just last week, a racial epithet carved into a desk. Many students said the fact that these incidents continue to happen sends the message that the school is not taking the right steps to prevent hateful speech.

Junior Lucas Santos, who attended the listening session, said the hurt she feels goes beyond the video itself.

“I’m more hurt by the school not doing anything about it. It really hits home when students, not just students, teachers who are supposed to be protecting you and the headmaster and all of these faculty members that are supposed to be protecting us and doing what’s best for us really aren’t,” Santos said.

According to Azeb, there was a delay before administrators understood the severity of the situation and came up with a coordinated response to it beyond just an email. Azeb said many students are upset by this.

According to an email sent out by Head of School Anthony Meyer, administrators were first made aware of the video on Feb. 10. An email was sent to parents the following day, and that same email was forwarded to students on Saturday Feb. 12. Meyer spoke over the PA system the following Thursday Feb. 17th to notify students about the listening session the next day.

Poon said despite administrators’ inability to share specific information, they are working to address this incident.

“Our administrators are working very closely with the student {in the video} themself and their family, and deans and guidance counselors are working with students who are more closely linked to the student and the incidents that led to the video being made public,” Poon said.

In the second part of the listening session, administrators asked students to share ideas for how to properly respond to the video. Some students called for the incident to be placed on the student’s permanent record. Many students called for restorative justice practices to be implemented, citing the need for the student to witness the harm they caused.

Junior Camille Jordan, who attended the listening session, said she wants this restorative justice as well, suggesting the student attend one of the listening sessions to see how the video affected students.

Many students seemed to agree that the student needs to apologize, but there was a range of thoughts on the best way to do so.

Some students also requested that the student be mandated to take a class that would explain the impacts and context of their actions. Santos said classes like this should happen proactively to prevent these incidents from happening.

“I’ve also talked about having a mandatory class that students take maybe their freshman year that helps educate them on racial and antisemitic issues so that these things don’t happen again because we’re not taking enough preventative measures to stop this from happening,” Santos said.

At the beginning of the first lunch block, room 385 was devoid of students. As a few minutes passed, five students took their seats next to 17 deans, guidance counselors, teachers, program coordinators and Meyer, who was projected on the whiteboard of the classroom by Zoom.

By the time the second lunch started, a stream of students, most coming from an African American and Latino Scholars (AALSP) class came into the classroom. As the adults in the room stood up to give seats to the newly arriving students, Azeb said the meeting became what he wanted it to be.

“Part of the reason why I do my job is so kids that look like me are comfortable in a school like this,” Azeb said. “When they’re willing to fight for themselves and air their frustrations and truths, the adults in the building should be able to do the same.”

Santos said it was empowering to see more students with the same feelings and opinions as her, and Jordan said she was also glad to see so many people being outspoken at the meeting.

Azeb said he wants these listening sessions to move from venting sessions to dialogue and open up communication between administrators and students as much as possible.

“There were legitimate ideas that were discussed and feelings, some appropriate and some not, but we started a conversation,” Azeb said. “I don’t know if a conversation like that has been started before.”

Santos said although the focus of the session is to hear student voices, she wishes there was more communication from the administrators present so that she knows what is feasible.

“The fact that the administration wasn’t talking back to us and responding, felt as though they were just hearing us and not actually listening,” Santos said. “It’s really frustrating to not be able to see the fruits of your labor and actually have change happen and actually have them understand.”

Azeb said in the listening session that most likely the student in the video will return to school, but he was unable to confirm whether or not the student has returned yet to protect their privacy. After the listening session, Azeb said that in order for students of color to feel safe in the school, there must be restorative practices.

“I don’t need y’all to love the kid after they just {disrespected} an entire community, but you’re {probably} going to see them. They have friends that think like them, there are other kids in the school that think like that,” Azeb said. “So we need to get our students of color at a place where they’re comfortable existing so that they know when these things happen we have a proper plan of response.”

Azeb said the student in the video made an awful mistake but is worthy of the opportunity to show that he can be a trusted member of the high school community again.

“At the end of the day, as a Black person, when I receive racist hate, I have two choices: I either respond with hate, in which case that person has learned and has been affirmed to continue to hate me, or I respond with an honest effort to get them to know me and to understand me,” Azeb said. “Beyond the fact I don’t believe the student to be a racist, even if I did, I would still want them to be in conversation and to be in community with people of color, so that maybe a year, two years, three years, four, you see a light bulb click, and they have reformed their way of thinking. And if not, worst case scenario, we tried.”