In the aftermath of March graffiti incident, responses arise

In the wake of a widely publicized racial incident at First Flight High School (FFHS) in March, some local community and school leaders are taking steps to raise more awareness about issues surrounding racism and encourage the celebration of racial diversity.

      The March 26 incident, when crude racist graffiti (“kill all niggers”) was found scrawled on school lockers, triggered an impassioned outpouring on social media and generated widespread local and even national news coverage. The Dare County Sheriff’s Office charged two students with misdemeanor racial intimidation and vandalism. And FFHS Principal Tim Albert, who left that job shortly after the incident, recommended the perpetrators be suspended for the rest of the school year.

      Dare Schools officials did not disclose what discipline they handed out to those students and, after the intense initial reaction, the story seemed to recede into the background. But in the wake of the ugly incident, a number of people and organizations are launching initiatives to address the issues and problems that it brought to the fore. 

      “It’s important to work together as a community to get through this and bring new understanding so that incidents like this one decrease,” Mount Olivet United Methodist Church Youth Pastor Michelle Lewis told the Sentinel. Lewis has been active locally in the efforts and recently launched a class to address racism and social justice at the Manteo church.

      The other initiatives underway include school-led teacher-based training, the formation of a cultural diversity focus group at FFHS, and a community night scheduled for some time in the beginning of the school year. 
 
      The Outer Banks Hotline and Dare County Schools have partnered to host the community night event, which is expected to be led by speaker and trainer Chimi Boyd-Keyes, who specializes in and focuses on cultivating safe and inclusive environments. 

      Hotline Program Coordinator Liz Jennings said her staff began talking with school administrators in early April about actions that would focus on diversity and ways the community needed to do to move forward after the First Flight incident. She noted that while that situation attracted significant attention to the issue of racism in the schools, students and staff there say the problem has existed for some time.

      “Thankfully, this incident brought it to light for the community so we could do something,” Jennings asserted. 

      In Manteo, Mount Olivet’s Lewis recently concluded her first session of “Justice Seeking Jesus” at that church. The class was held over several weeks and focused on combating racism and homophobia, as well as anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment in the community. She said the class was so popular, the church plans on hosting a second session this summer.

      Lewis, who holds a doctorate from Emory University, has also launched the Peace Garden Project on Roanoke Island. That is aimed at providing food security and healthy options while bringing together neighbors and community members from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Her hope, she added, is that a cultural diversity festival will also take place sometime in the near future.

      At the local school level, a student focus group was formed shortly after the March incident to solicit input from students who make up FFHS’s marginalized populations. Dare County Schools Digital Communications Director Keith Parker said the input from those students has helped educators begin devising a long-range action plan to address issues surrounding racism and foster cultural diversity awareness.

      And a group of AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teachers from Manteo High School (MHS) attended a national conference in February that focused in part on culturally-relevant teacher training and validating the cultures of all students in the classroom.  

      From that, the group later created a short professional development “teach back” presentation for district administrators, as well as faculty at MHS, and most recently at FFHS on May 20. Plans are to bring it to Cape Hatteras Secondary School faculty in August.

      MHS AVID teacher Bailey Triplett said some strategies being shared include ideas for making classroom environments welcoming for all students. She offered a few examples, such as asking students questions that encourage opportunities to share experiences unique to their background.  Choosing books for the classrooms that have diverse characters, so every group of students is represented, was another approach that was discussed.

      Dare Schools Director of Innovation Johanna Parker noted that the sessions gave faculty the opportunity to brainstorm and plan how different perspectives can be represented in the classroom.  “This is really hammering home the fact that differences are so valuable…and what makes the world great, and there are ways to do that in the classroom every day,” she asserted.

      For his part, Keith Parker added that the sessions focused on “looking through the lens of all kids, integrating tolerance in lessons and applying cultural responsiveness in classrooms and school.”

      He added that district administrators are working on a more comprehensive plan to tackle the issues over the summer. “It’s a significant discussion and not just a half-day or even full-day training is enough. We want to embed training throughout the school year, but we are still developing that,” he concluded.

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