Latin@ Students and Families United for Inclusive Schools Win Major Concessions
Organizers with Wayside Center have offered organizing support and interpretation services to this struggle from the very beginning. Participants in our summer internship program were among some of the primary student organizers at the start of the campaign. We share with you now the story of how these students and their parents courageously took on the Richmond Public School System and won.
Two years ago, the principal of Huguenot High School in Richmond, VA called all of the Latino students to the cafeteria under the pretext of a meeting with their Latino Club. When they arrived, there was no meeting. Instead their backpacks were searched and they were escorted to their buses at dismissal time in small groups. The principal told them that they were being singled out for this treatment because he had received information about a fight. He threatened them with reprisals based on their immigration status if they did not cooperate.
In the wake of this incident, a group of Latino parents and students came together to organize a response. During their community meetings, it became clear that this incident represented a pattern of race and language-based discrimination in the school. Meeting after school at the community center of a local apartment complex, the students and families crafted a list of demands and the first steps in a strategy to achieve them.
Latin@ Students and Families United for Diverse and Inclusive Schools employed a diversity of tactics, beginning with an in-person meeting with the principal, Mr. Barakat, to present their demands. Mr. Barakat made a great show of listening to the demands but made no promises, and then asked them to call off the protest set for later that day. The students and parents knew better than to let up the pressure and the protest was well-attended, attracting attention from the School Board, the NAACP and the local media. They showed up in force at the next school board meeting, bringing their own language interpreters to their press conference and then inside to the meeting so that all students and parents could have a voice in demanding that their concerns be addressed.
The school system responded by creating a Multicultural Task Force comprised of service providers and other individuals who were not part of the directly affected community. The families met with the school superintendent, and presented a letter denouncing the Task Force and demanding that the school system meet with them directly to address their concerns, but they were ignored and the Task Force continued.
Stopping all conversations with the school administration for a time, the group continued organizing on the ground, building their base, meeting with more families and students, holding popular education workshops where everyone shared experiences and contributed to a collective analysis of the interconnected repression they faced with immigration, racism and the school to prison pipeline. They learned and shared knowledge about student’s rights, systemic change and the organizing skills it takes to achieve it.
More families from other schools around the city joined the efforts and started demanding justice, from being treated with respect when entering in the schools, to being informed in their native language about their student’s progress, to the right to get professional/neutral interpretation during meetings with school officials and teachers.
A new School Superintendent, Danna T. Bedden, came on board in 2014, and in October the group met with him to re-start negotiations about the group demands. Dr. Bedden and 3 other people from the new administration were invited to meet with students and families at a local apartment complex community center. During this meeting, the new administration heard the story from the directly affected people, the incident hat precipitated the struggle, the list of demands, the school administration response and their opposition to the Multicultural Task Force. The group asked Dr. Bedden to eliminate the Task Force, and to involve the students and families directly in the process of decision making instead of having people external to their community making decisions for them. The families also demanded an immediate end to any type of threats to students and/or families based on immigration status. After reviewing reports from the Task Force, Dr. Bedden agreed. The Task Force was disbanded and he held a meeting with all Huguenot School personnel to announce a zero tolerance policy regarding school staff members mentioning immigration status to students or parents in the school system.
Since then, the group has met with Dr. Bedden and his administration four times. They have observed changes being implemented based on their demands not only at Huguenot but in other schools as well. On February 5th, the students and parents met with Dr. Bedden, and with Huguenot Prinicpal Mr. Barakat to present the demands again. They asked Mr. Barakat to show how any of the demands had been acted upon. Mr. Barakat was unable to produce any evidence of the changes he claimed to have been making. Dr. Bedden and the Executive Director of Secondary Schools, Abe Jeffers, promised the families and students to make immediate changes starting with the apology Mr. Barakat had promised two years earlier and never delivered.
In an e-mail sent to one of the group organizers, Mr. Jeffers reported that immediate changes have been made as follows:
- Ms. Ortiz (Security Guard) will no longer be working at HHS.
- The language line is now activated at HHS and folks there are being trained to properly access it and interpretation/translation services.
- The use of students and CIS personnel to interpret has been stopped.
- Bilingual students who work in the office are to greet and assist guests to appropriate personnel/resources only.
The group is waiting for the School Administration to schedule the press conference for the public apology and is watching closely to see that the changes promised above are implemented. Grassroots organizing takes time, and effort, and a non-reactionary approach. A base is built while knowledge, analysis and power are shared. Strategies and tactics are created and actions are taken based on a collective process. Two years after The Latino Club was deceptively lured to the cafeteria and singled out for race-based discrimination, the students and their parents are beginning to see the fruits of their organizing.
Latin@ Families and Students United for Inclusive Schools will continue fighting to create a systematic change within Richmond Public Schools that will bring justice to immigrant families. And if the administration does not follow through on their promises . . . they know just what to do.