Charlottesville High School students want equity issues in the school system addressed, and they want it now.
More than 100 students walked out of class Monday to call on division leaders to improve supports for black and brown students and admonish them for past inaction. The school’s Black Student Union organized the Racial Justice Walkout and issued 10 demands, including hiring more black teachers, training for school resource officers and ongoing testing for gifted education.
Students in Charlottesville schools returned to school Monday after the division closed for two days in response to a racist online threat. Police arrested a 17-year-old in Albemarle County in connection with the post that threatened an “ethnic cleansing” and specifically mentioned black and Latinx students.
Yet, the walkout wasn’t about the threat, said Zyahna Bryant, a CHS senior and current School Board student representative.
“It’s about the everyday racism we experience in Charlottesville schools,” she told fellow students during the rally.
As a freshman, Bryant founded the Black Student Union at CHS and started a petition for the city to remove its statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Bryant and senior Althea Laughon-Worrell led the walkout. Charlottesville High School tweeted Sunday that students’ absences would be excused if they had a note from a parent or guardian.
Students stood along the U.S. 250 Bypass, chanting and holding signs that declared their demands. They were joined in McIntire Park by about two dozen community members. Nearly 20 community advocacy groups and elected officials endorsed the demands, according to a news release.
Among the students’ 10 demands is improved security at CHS, Buford and Walker. They want the division to implement a buzzer system at those schools similar to what it used in the city’s elementary schools.
A division spokeswoman said previously scheduled work on door security began Monday. The systems are expected to be operating this summer.
Bryant was one of two students featured in a New York Times-ProPublica article about racial divides and achievement gaps in the division. In response, division officials organized community forums to hear from parents about the school system’s equity issues.
Trinity Hughes, a CHS senior who also was featured in the article, said not much has changed since the story was published in October.
“Every time something happens, it just dies down and they forget about it,” she said.
Hughes was encouraged by the turnout at Monday’s walkout.
“I think they are really starting to get that this is important,” she said. “Equity is important. Racial justice is important. We need to stop white supremacy in schools here and all over the world.”
Hughes said students wanted to take action after last week’s threat.
“We have to do something for this because we felt like people weren’t taking it seriously and about how racism in schools is a problem,” she said. “We have to deal with that.”
The division said in a statement that the demands complement current efforts to address racial equity in Charlottesville City Schools.
“Our schools have been working vigorously to address racial disparities for decades but have not consistently seen the fruit that our students of color deserve (which would benefit everyone in our community),” School Board Chairwoman Jennifer McKeever said in the statement.
McKeever said community forums have helped board members and division staff to better understand what is and what is not working to promote equity.
“While the Black Student Union’s ideas are very complementary to the approach we’ve been taking, what is less clear is a ‘magic solution’ for making our schools — or any schools in the country — truly equitable for all,” she said.
McKeever cited the division’s participation in a partnership with Virginia Humanities, dubbed Changing the Narrative, which aims to explore black history and culture in schools as an example of a complementary idea. The school system is one of six in the state participating in the initiative.
“This will support our efforts to better incorporate diverse perspectives and voices in all of our history classes, not just an elective in African-American history,” she said.
One of the demands calls for the African-American history classes at CHS to hold the same weight as honors history courses. The School Board recently approved a program of study that upgraded the classes to honors electives.
“Everyone should take African-American history,” Bryant said as she read aloud the group’s demands before the march started.