Members of the Indivisible West Suburban Action League, a progressive advocacy group based in Riverside, are demanding action and accountability by Riverside-Brookfield High School in response to descriptions of racism and lack of inclusion made by two Black students in statements to the school board in April.
At the May 4 District 208 Board of Education meeting, Indivisible members Lindsay Morrison and Kendra Curry-Khanna read letters addressed to the school board, the superintendent, and administration thanking students Tirza Elliott and Raven McKelvin for coming forward and demanding that RBHS take specific steps to address the issues the girls raised.
“As community members, as taxpayers, and particularly as parents, we were struck by Tirza and Raven’s bravery as they spoke their truth to power – literally – to room of white adult decision makers,” Curry-Khanna said. “We were simultaneously infuriated that the behavior they had experienced was tolerated, and sadly unsurprised by reports of racism occurring in our schools.
“What was most disappointing, however, is what it took for us to listen. If school leaders had been doing their jobs advocating for the youth and families in our communities, students would not need to put themselves into a position of extreme vulnerability to be heard – or for us to listen.”
Curry-Khanna laid out four specific demands. She asked the school to publish a public response to Elliott and McKelvin; to establish a zero-tolerance policy against racist speech or actions by students, staff, administration, leadership and parents that include swift, certain consequences; share with the community an action plan for the district to address bias, racism, and racial disparity in the school; and to provide restorative resources for support and healing to those who have experienced racialized trauma at RBHS.
While not committing to taking any specific action, in follow up interviews new school board President Deanna Zalas and Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said they are committed to address equity and inclusion at RBHS. They both noted that the school has already taken steps to address these issues.
“I don’t personally disagree with their letters and I would kind of expect them to speak for others,” said Zalas adding that she wants school administrators to meet with Indivisible leaders about their demands. “There is work that has been done in each of those areas, so it would be helpful to give them some of that background information.”
Zalas agreed that the district needs to focus on issues of race and equity.
“We’re coming off a year where this is a really significant issue in our community, in our society,” Zalas said. “We are not exempt in any way shape or form from these discussions, and our population deserves fair and open dialogue on these matters.”
Zalas said she was moved by the comments made by Elliott and McKelvin.
“I personally was touched by it and I would say the board was really touched by it,” Zalas said.
Both Zalas and Skinkis said that the school has already taken steps to address these issues, steps that the student speakers may not have been aware of.
“We’re not starting from ground zero,” Zalas said.
Skinkis was more specific, saying RBHS last summer convened a restorative practice committee that will be working to implement restorative practices with students and staff next school year. The school has also begun implicit bias training for staff.
“I commend the Indivisible West Suburban Action for coming to the board meeting and taking an active role in what’s going on at RB,” Skinkis said. “I think the high school has taken a lot of these steps already this school year.”
Skinkis said the school, which has only one Black teacher, special education teacher Jordan Mack, and one Black academic support paraprofessional, is making concerted effort to diversify its faculty. He noted that at the May 4 meeting the school board approved the hiring of a bilingual social studies teacher and someone who teaches both science and English as a second language.
Skinkis also noted that the school hired Freytas, who is Hispanic, as principal two years ago and hired a Hispanic dean last summer.
“A lot of positive steps have already been taken,” Skinkis said. “I think some of that has been lost due to the pandemic and students not being in school first semester.”