Ashley Alcantar, a senior at West Hall High School, says she has always had to carry the fear caused by prejudice and discrimination.
Alcantar, who is a Hispanic-American, told The Times she has seen several instances of racial biases and microaggressions from fellow students – and even sometimes school staff – that have caused her to worry about coming to school.
“Whenever it has happened, you kind of experience a sort of shock that you’re witnessing this in today’s day and age,” she said. “And you also have to wonder if you might be next, because that might be you next that’s being targeted or profiled in such a way.”
Around 50% of Hall County students are Hispanic or Black, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement’s 2019 report, but Alcantar said racial discrimination is still an issue in the school system. And now district officials say they’re addressing those issues.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield announced via a YouTube video published in late July that, in response to the continually growing social justice movement that has been in the global spotlight since late May, the Hall County School District would be launching a multi-faceted social justice initiative aimed at making students feel accepted and safe.
“The horrific events in Minneapolis have kind of forced us to collectively hold a mirror up to our faces in terms of the conscience of the nation,” Schofield said.
Talking with students
The school district’s plan is made up of several action steps, with one of the most immediate being dialogue held between Schofield and groups of diverse students attending Hall County high schools.
Alcantar, who was a part of one of the conversations with Schofield, said it meant a lot to her that the superintendent of her school district was taking the initiative to address the problem head on. She said the conversations began with discussion of what the Black Lives Matter movement meant to her and her peers. Later on, the students were given an opportunity to share some of the experiences they have had with racial discrimination in a Hall County school.
“We were able to leave these conversations feeling perhaps a little bit lighthearted that we were able to finally voice aloud those times that we felt we were made inferior by our peers or others we would have trusted or at least thought would not have targeted us or direct those thoughts at us,” she said.
The students were also given the opportunity to offer suggestions for how they think the school district could improve in addressing prejudice in schools. Alcantar said she personally suggested a stronger commitment to communicating with Spanish-speaking parents of students who she feels may be out of touch with what’s going on in schools because of a language barrier.
Schofield said the discussions with students were eye-opening to him. He said that while he was disheartened to hear students and staff were oftentimes complicit in racial discrimination, the capability to communicate and positive mindset expressed by the students he met with left him with “a great deal of pride and a great deal of hope for the future.”
“It was powerful to hear that these kids could all talk about instances of racism or social injustice that they’ve seen in their school, and that in some of the instances, we actually had Hall County School District team members who the kids said witnessed or saw or heard what happened and didn’t react,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re aware and that everybody in our school district is aware that there’s a zero tolerance for any type of injustice, be it racial injustice or social injustice, and that we call those things what they are, and what they are is wrong.”
New book collections to reflect diversity
Another aspect of Hall County’s social justice initiative is an adjustment to the book collections in elementary school media centers.
Schofield said some students told him they thought that books portraying white protagonists were too prominent in school libraries, and the district has already ordered new books to help balance things out.
“We don’t have many books that represent the incredible diversity we have in the Hall County School District,” he said. “We wanted to find a way to update some of our elementary libraries with books that more accurately reflect the kids we have in our schools.”
He turned to Kristi Crumpton, elementary media coordinator for the district, to help choose those new books.
Crumpton said she drew from several sources, including Common Sense Media – a nonprofit organization geared toward “promoting safe technology and media for children” – as well as Capstone Books – a publisher of children’s media – and input from media specialists in other Hall County schools.
Crumpton said she ordered multiple different books depicting African American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Islamic characters, purchasing 20 different copies of each book so all Hall County elementary school libraries can make the additions. She said that while Schofield advised her to begin the media center adjustments at the elementary level, she also contacted media specialists at Hall County middle and high schools and challenged them to look at their own personal collections to add a bit of diversity.
Crumpton said she believes the new books will help younger students feel more secure in their own identities.
“Sometimes a book and a book character is maybe the only person that we can truly identify with because maybe there’s something going on in our lives that we just don’t want to share about but we’re curious to know how other people handled this situation, or I want to see just characters reflecting what I’m doing in my life,” she said. “As a reader, that’s what we go to, is we want to find people that we relate to and that we can identify with. We understand how important it is that they identify with books and book characters, so we want to make sure we have that available for them.”
Boys and Girls Club CEO shares experiences with discrimination
Schofield also hosted a town hall this summer, inviting around 60 Hall County Schools employees to listen to him and Boys and Girls Club of Lanier CEO Steve Mickens have a conversation on racism and discrimination.
Mickens – who Schofield referred to as “a dear friend” – said the conversation between he and the Hall County superintendent began in private a few weeks before the open town hall. He said Schofield contacted him about a week after the video showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes went viral, simply because he was hoping to gain some perspective from Mickens, who is Black.
“From that conversation, (Schofield) said to me ‘Hey listen, this would be great for us to have this dialogue in an open forum in a town hall setting’,” Mickens said.
After a week of consideration, Mickens took Schofield up on the offer.
He said the town hall was beneficial for both him and the Hall County employees who attended. Mickens and Schofield discussed Mickens’ experience with discrimination, and Mickens said many of those in attendance were surprised to hear he continues to deal with prejudice despite being college-educated and a CEO. Among other experiences, Mickens said he has been asked if he is in the wrong seat when flying first class on multiple occasions, while many of his fellow passengers, who are white, were not questioned.
"The most important thing was how do you deal with coping with things like that,” he said. "So I gave some experiences and I said I think for the most part, for us, African Americans, we’ve just had to deal with it and try to press on and continue to lead by example. And hopefully this dialogue will spark more conversations.”
Mickens said initiatives like the one Hall County is taking are “critical” in moving toward an end to prejudice and discrimination.
According to Mickens, conversations like the one he had with Schofield and the ones Schofield had with Hall County students are crucial in identifying problems that are close to home and hopefully eliminating them.
“There’s always been the need to have conversations, but when discomfort comes in, people tend to avoid having those conversations,” he said. “But you need discomfort in those conversations in order to have progress. And so I think the more that we lead our young people in these conversations, we help them navigate and we help them deal with their feelings and hear different perspectives of it, which I think is vitally important.”