Berkeley High Forms Equity Group to Address Racism

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:16:00 AM

Berkeley High School took a first step to address campus racism Tuesday. 

A group of 30 school administrators, parents, teachers and students met as part of an Equity Committee for the first time since June, when the campus erupted with racial tension from derogatory remarks aimed at black students and teachers on the social networking site Facebook just weeks before graduation. 

Although Berkeley High School officials admitted that the incident, involving about 15 white Berkeley High students posting demeaning pictures of African- Americans under an album titled “Niggas,” and a Photoshopped picture of a black Berkeley High faculty member in chains on the Internet, was not an isolated episode, they denied that rampant racism existed on campus. 

“Racism is a part of every urban high school campus,” Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp told the Planet during an interview at his office Tuesday. “People have a right to put what they want on Facebook, but when it becomes disruptive for the campus, then it’s going too far.” 

In June, a group of Berkeley High students—mainly members of the school’s Black Student Union—decided to walk out of class to protest the Facebook incident, and even rallied at a Berkeley Board of Education meeting, demanding that African-American Studies classes be made a graduation requirement and that an ethnically diverse student panel be placed in charge of hiring more teachers of color. 

At least two of the young men involved in the Facebook incident were suspended from school, and, although the school considered expelling one of them, it later decided against doing so. After consulting with Slemp, one of the students involved in the incident decided not to speak at the graduation ceremony. 

Slemp said he decided to form an Equity Committee right after the Facebook incident, to provide a safe place for families—especially black and Latino parents—to talk about their concerns. 

Although Berkeley High, which prides itself on student diversity, has a number of different committees on campus to address everything ranging from school governance to safety to the senior prom, Slemp said there had been nothing dedicated entirely to addressing equity. 

“It will be a voice that will help us make decisions from the point of view of equity,” he said of the committee. “There were a lot of folks in the community who wanted to get involved, and we took them all on board.” 

The group will have no decision-making power and will act simply as an advisory body. It will meet once a month, and all meetings, which will be convened by Slemp, will be open to the public. 

The committee will focus on student data, to get a better grasp of the issues involved, which Slemp said was on a par with the work being done on the 2020 Vision, a citywide effort to close the achievement gap in the Berkeley public schools. 

“It will be a watchdog group,” said Slemp. “There’s just one thing we ask—that is, if anyone has a concern about a specific child, they should not mention any names in public.” 

When asked whether the school had placed any restrictions on how students should behave on Facebook or other forms of social media such as MySpace or Twitter to avoid further racial harassment, Slemp said it had not. 

“It’s important to protect children’s free speech rights,” he said. “We can’t control what they do on Facebook. But my suggestion to them is ‘be careful of what you put up there.’ Businesses are checking back sites before hiring anyone these days, so students should understand the implications of harassing other people.” 

Slemp said the committee was so informal at this point that nobody on the School Board had been notified about it yet. 

“I am glad the school is doing something,” said School Board Member John Selawsky when the Planet informed him about the new committee. “I am not sure whether what happened was meant to be malicious, cruel or just a prank, but it was mean-spirited and ugly. This notion that Facebook is a private thing, that nobody can see it, is stupid. Students should know that the whole world can see it.” 

Berkeley High alumnus Assata Harris, who took part in the student protests in June, said that, although things had “simmered down quite a bit,” racism would always exist at the school. 

“If you look at the history of Berkeley High School, racism comes in tides and last year we got hit with a wave,” Harris said in an e-mail message to the Planet. “This shows every white student who dares to be prejudiced that they can get away because of their white privilege. It’s sad to me how people think Berkeley is liberal when it’s just the biggest excuse for covert racism.” 

Berkeley High Black Student Union President and Equity Committee member Raymok Ketema said that, although racial tensions at Berkeley High were not as bad as they were in public schools in other states, racism lurked in hallways, corridors, stairwells and even classrooms. 

“In my AP class, I am the only black girl,” she said. “It’s difficult to be in an AP class when there’s no one else who looks like you. You have to try a bit harder to prove to the teacher that you actually deserve to be there.”