An unwanted spotlight is on Naperville schools after a student was accused of making a racist Craigslist ad last month that featured a picture of a black student with the title “slave for sale.” But some families and faculty members said the incident at Naperville Central High School is just a public example of behavior that’s been common for years.
“It has been a long-standing issue. Our organization exists because of that issue,” said Keri King, a founding member for S.U.C.C.E.S.S, a parent group advocating for students of color in Naperville School District 203. “The issues with equity and equality have been a recurring theme.”
After the Craigslist ad became public, the west suburban school district acknowledged these are persistent issues and said it had been working to improve, and that includes regaining trust.
Last year, the school district 203 hired Dr. Rakeda Leaks as its first executive director of diversity and inclusion. Families of color had been asking administrators to hire someone like her for years. Leaks said the incident at Naperville Central is a reminder of why her work is so important.
“I’m leveraging that particular incident … to really think about what can we do with students to make sure that they are culturally aware and culturally sensitive,” Leaks said.
It’s a tall task. Families hope Leaks can break through, but many doubt the district will ever change its ways The district is made up of 22 schools and serves just over 16,500 students. While the community is becoming more diverse, the black student population hasn’t changed much in 20 years at just 5% of the total student body.
“A red flag to me”
One skeptical parent is Marla Baker, who moved with her children to Naperville from southern Illinois. She picked the community because she said on paper, it looked like a great place to live and raise kids.
But disturbing signs began to emerge starting three years ago when she got a call from school that her son got in a fight with another middle-school boy. She said her son got an in-school suspension while the other student was able to return to class. Baker said the school told her the other boy was just playing around.
“You call his behavior ‘boys being boys,’ but you said what my son did was more aggressive, so you put him in in-school suspension,” she said. “That was kind of the first time that there was a red flag to me.”
Then in eighth grade, her son was racially bullied over social media while at school, during school hours.
“There was a part of [the Snapchat thread] where it was like, ‘Yo, you just need to kill yourself,’” she remembered. “Then they sent him pictures of a noose. They sent him pictures of the KKK.”
They also used racial slurs repeatedly in the thread, including a picture of a bug spray can, substituting a racial epithet for the word “bug.”
Baker discovered the bullying because her son’s phone continued to get Snapchat notifications. She asked her son why he didn’t tell anyone about the thread she described as “hateful and appalling.”
“He’s like, ‘The last time I told somebody, I got in trouble, and I was called aggressive. So I just felt like if I didn’t say anything, it will go away,” she recalled him saying.
Baker reported what happened to district officials. She tried to report it as a hate crime with the police but was referred back to the school. Baker wanted to move her son to a different school, but the district discouraged it at first, saying it would be best if her son learned how to handle these kinds of problems.
Baker said her son started questioning his worth, and now that he’s in high school, she said he’s withdrawn. It’s made her question her parenting.
“There are some days that I cry. I feel helpless,” she said through tears. “I feel powerless. I feel like I can’t do anything.”
Following the publicity around the Craigslist ad, administrators publicly apologized and said they knew this problem had persisted for years. They also admitted they didn’t handle things well before and need to do better. But Baker doubts they’re sincere.
She wants the district to own up to specific problems and the role they played in them.
Not “Tootsie Rolls” or “chocolate ice cream”
Some staff also feel disappointed in the district’s administration. Brandi McClinton, who is black, worked at a Naperville elementary school in 2017.
She heard staff make comments that implied working with students of color was like working with animals. She remembered discussing with a colleague how to respond to a young girl who had called black people “chocolate ice cream.” The colleague didn’t think there was anything wrong with that, and in fact, she said she called black people “Tootsie Rolls” — something McClinton had already warned her against.
“I believe that if people are saying something out of ignorance, and they don’t know it’s offensive, it’s one thing. But once you inform somebody that’s an offensive statement and they continue it and they’re an adult, that’s not acceptable,” McClinton said.
McClinton had to take on tasks that weren’t part of her job description, like collecting forms and handling discipline for black students. She was also asked to make calls to black parents. Many times she had no previous connection with these students.
Some teachers told her they felt uncomfortable talking with black parents, which McClinton appreciated. She said the honesty meant they were open to growing. But she said administrators saw the situation differently and said black parents lacked the skills to communicate with the school.
McClinton said her attempts to report these things were dismissed, and she said she faced retaliation for raising them. After one semester, she left.
“I went to counseling after that because it was emotionally damaging, and I wasn’t going to ruin my career over them,” she said.
The district would not respond to questions about Baker and McClinton’s specific incidents for privacy reasons.
Naperville isn’t alone
The problems in Naperville do not define the actions of every school, teacher or student there, of course. And Naperville is not the only school district struggling with racial issues and implicit bias.
But not all school districts handle them the same way, said Dr. Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist and professor of urban education at the University of Pennsylvania.
He said race problems in schools can start off small, but can grow into something bigger when the underlying issues aren’t addressed. He said it can be a reflection of the school’s struggle to develop a policy on diversity.
“It’s not uncommon for people to be confused on how to lead in these circumstances,” Stevenson said. “The problem is that they often reflect a culture that is permissive toward the little things that are said and when they grow to be bigger, the folks are still not prepared to handle it.”
Stevenson said teachers of color like Brandi McClinton can feel isolated not only because a lack of diversity on staff, but because they don’t have school leaders who understand their life experience or offer protection when conflicts arise.
Leaks said she recognizes the district may have done things in the past that validate experiences like that of McClinton and Baker, and she wants to change that.
“Maybe the perception that’s out there is that it had not been a priority in the past, but I want to make it clear to them that it is a priority right now,” Leaks said.
Leaks said in the past, it’s likely that staff members, 90% of whom are white, did not recognize their blindspots when it came to race. If they’ve never experienced racism or implicit bias, it may be easy to dismiss something as an isolated incident, as some have done.
Leaks said that’s why it’s important for the community to recognize the pain people of color have endured.
“We can heal together, and we can find some resolution and how to move forward and to address those situations appropriately,” she said.
At a recent community conversation hosted by the district, residents were invited to talk about race and implicit bias. A racially mixed group of parents and educators discussed if they had dismissed someone’s concerns about race or if they’d ever been on the receiving end.
District Supt. Dan Bridges said some parents have shared stories with him about the racial bias their children say they’ve experienced at school. He said the district has been working to do better, even before the public incident.
“This has to be an ongoing topic, and I think the only outcome I hope to get from this is the community recognizes that we can be better,” Bridges said. “We need their help to be better, and we can engage together to ensure we accomplish the goals that we set.”
Several parents left the November session saying they needed to make more of an effort to talk to their children about race.
At the schools, Leaks is already rolling out a plan that includes a curriculum audit and equity trainings for staff. She’s also looking at how to change hiring practices to increase diversity.
Parents like Keri King are hopeful. She said her daughters have dealt with racial bias at school, though not as severe as what Baker’s son experienced. She said under Leaks, things were moving in the right direction, but very slowly. She described the district as a powder keg, and what happened at Naperville Central High School sparked the explosion. She hopes the public backlash will accelerate change.
“We have been asking for that level of accountability for some time,” King said. “Now, they’re in a position where they’re going to have to show some level of accountability because all eyes are watching.”
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.