A racist statement reportedly written on a bathroom stall at Riverside-Brookfield High School two weeks ago prompted about 25 or so students to stage a silent protest at a RBHS student assembly last week.
On Nov. 16, the words “Whites Only” was written on a girls bathroom stall at RBHS, confirmed District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. The graffiti was not reported to the Riverside Police Department, but was removed by school staff.
“This type of behavior will not be tolerated at Riverside Brookfield High School,” Skinkis said in response to the graffiti incident. “Our first priority is to continue to provide a safe and respectful learning environment for every student and staff member.”
No official announcement was made to students or parents about the graffiti until after the student protest, six days later. But word and photos of the graffiti spread quickly among students and some students were concerned that the school administration was trying to hush up the incident.
“The reason we had this protest is because they tried to just cover it up,” said Taylor Rosicky, a RBHS senior from Brookfield.
At the fall sports pep assembly held at the end of the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, on Nov. 22, some students held up protest signs with statements such as “I stand up against hate.”
“We wanted to point out the discrimination that goes on within the school and we wanted to call attention to the issues that are being faced by certain minority groups in our school, students and faculty alike,” said Rosie Nolan, a RBHS senior from Riverside.
A few minutes into the assembly a few students stood up holding signs, but they and their signs were removed from the gym by RBHS security personnel. They were apparently taken to the school’s auditorium and asked to fill out a survey.
“Some students who held up a sign were pulled down so we could have a conversation with them, just inviting them to stay after school so we could address their concerns,” said RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana. “So once we told students about that, those students were permitted to go back into the gymnasium.
When the assembly was over at the end of the school day about 25 students stood together on the gym bleachers silently holding up their signs. After a few minutes RBHS Assistant Principal of Student Affairs Dave Mannon went over to students and began a discussion with them. After five or 10 minutes, Mannon told the students that they needed to leave the gym but invited them to continue the discussion in the school’s Little Theater.
The students took Mannon up on his invitation and had an approximately hour-long discussion with him, Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction Kylie Gregor and Dean Neil Dughetti. A few teachers were also present.
When a Landmark reporter tried to enter the Little Theater to observe the discussion, Mannon told him that the meeting was private and that he would be not be permitted to observe the meeting.
“It was just an event that was not open to the public because of concerns about student privacy, and we wanted students to be able to express their thoughts freely,” Smetana said on Monday.
After the meeting, a few students who were at the meeting spoke to the Landmark.
“It was ultimately helpful,” Nolan said of the meeting. “I think it will be the start of something that will continue to be productive, but so far it’s only the beginning. We want them to address the issues that have been going on rather than just brush them under the rug or not mentioning it.”
Students described the meeting as emotional and respectful.
“I feel like they listened to us more than they usually have,” Rosicky said.
Smetana, who sent out an email to parents on the evening after the protest on Nov. 22 mentioning the graffiti, said that the administration couldn’t say much about the incident because it was the subject of an ongoing investigation.
“Just like any other graffiti we find we immediately take it down and address it to try to find the person that was responsible for it,” Smetana said.
The students said that hateful statements are a problem at RBHS and that racial and other tensions have become worse since the presidential election.
“I see people using racial slurs in the hallway and using other slurs … that I don’t feel comfortable repeating,” Nolan said.
Nov. 22 was declared to be Pride and Positivity Day at RBHS. Smetana said that the decision was made to have an assembly before the graffiti incident to honor fall sports teams.
She said that Erika’s Lighthouse, a student group that tries to bring attention to depression and suicide prevention always does an event to promote positivity, and the decision was made to combine the two events.
Sticky notes with positive, caring statements were placed on every student’s locker before the start of school on Nov. 22. During the morning announcements Smetana made a special announcement listing things that she was thankful for.
A group of students, many from the student group Association of Students for Tolerance (AST) had met that morning with RBHS administrators, including Smetana, who thanked the students for the discussion and briefly addressed diversity issues.
“I am thankful to be a principal at a high school whose culture and practice is to accept all aspects of every student, including race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, age, religion, and ability,” Smetana said.
Shalah Russell, an African-American freshman from North Riverside, said that she appreciated the oblique response to racist graffiti but that the graffiti was troublesome.
“The school tried to apologize for it with many things like sticky notes on everybody’s locker, but it still kind of made us, as African-American girls, targeted because we go to a predominately white school and we feel targeted,” said Russell, who did not participate in the protest.
Russell and a couple other students said that she believes some students have been emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
“They’re acting differently now that he’s elected,” said Russell who said no one at RBHS has ever made a racist statement directed at her.
Russell said that she believes the assembly helped, but can only do so much.
“I feel like they tried to make it better, but you can tell it’s not going to fix everything,” Russell said. “They can’t erase someone’s feelings. They’re still going to have that opinion about that race.”
Another meeting was held with students Monday.
“It was a very positive, productive meeting,” Smetana said. “Students felt their voices were heard and were very appreciative of the opportunity to continue collaborating to ensure every student feels valued and respected at RB.”