Petition: Support RRHS BSU Students and Educators

What follows is a letter drafted by the River Ridge High School (RRHS) BSU outlining their current experiences and demands. It was sent to Superintendent Reykdal who has yet to respond as of March 3, 2022, the date of this publication.

You can support the BSU by signing this petition, which will send a letter in support of their below demands to Superintendent Reykdal and the administrators of NTPS and RRHS, and by donating to their legal fund.

To Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, and members of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction,

We are the Black Student Union (BSU) of North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS). Our BSU advocates for the collective interest and rights of Black students, and by extension the rights of all students participating in the institution of public education. We are writing to you not only on behalf of our BSU members, but also in an effort to protect the rights of students who have been targets of sexual violence in our schools, including female-identifying, transgender, and non-binary students. We are uniting in a collective effort to ensure that students’ rights are protected, regardless of sex, gender presentation, or sexuality, and that all students have access to a safe and inclusive school environment free from sexual violence, racism, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. 

Students from a variety of backgrounds and identities reported multiple experiences of discrimination and injustice when filing incidents of racism and sexual harassment to administrators and/or district level officials. This is not acceptable. We must act in our own best interests to secure our rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools, public colleges, and universities. We must act to hold institutions of public education accountable to the Title IX Constitutional Amendment of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity) in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. 

Our previous and ongoing attempts to work “within the system” have resulted in re-traumatization, gaslighting, and repeated instances of our concerns being dismissed and/or minimized further compounding our trauma. Despite attempts to follow outlined procedures in our student handbook and make reports to the powers that be, we have not been protected from racial abuse, sexual trauma, and retaliation inflicted on us by peers and even staff. Administrators and district officials have proven unable to provide us with a safe learning environment and, conversely, have created a hostile environment for students who were involved in our strike against racism and rape culture in schools.  

Because of these shortcomings, it is now our responsibility to cultivate change and secure justice for ourselves.

We spent over 5 months from September 2021 into March 2022 meeting with supportive teachers, in small groups, and eventually formed alliances with larger groups of students to analyze our circumstances and how the systems in our schools have failed to protect us. We met with caregivers/parents in December of 2021 to raise awareness of our lived experiences as students in NTPS.  As a result of these meetings, we created a list of short-term goals and long-term goals that would serve to improve the educational experiences of BIPOC and other marginalized students. We began to implement changes on our own but were denied the opportunity to even have a student advocate in our meetings with administrators.

Our circumstances progressively became worse with mounting incidents of racism and sexual violence and as we continued to advocate for ourselves. It was necessary to take more drastic measures. We held a second meeting with students experiencing sexual violence on campus. On Saturday, January 29th, BSU leaders and our advisors, student representatives for those experiencing sexual violence, caregivers/parents of the Black Student Union from the 3 high schools in NTPS, and concerned community leaders gathered for a presentation by the BSU Coalition.  All high school level administrators were invited but only Angela Lee-Pope, the Vice Principal from River Ridge, attended with the District’s Director of Equity, Dr. Antonio Sandifer.  At this meeting, we established a foundational understanding of the harm that we have had to endure from administrators and district officials who have treated students from BIPOC and marginalized communities inequitably.  We announced our strike and that the timeline would be for as long as is necessary to get our demand met from school leadership.  We received overwhelming caregiver and community support. 

At this point, however, we did not know that the demands we created were already written into the district’s governance policies on Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying in some form years before.  These were not detailed on page 17 of the HIB section of the Student’s Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.  We only discovered this after we met with the Nisqually Tribal Council who recommended creating a fact sheet in which NTPS policies and state RCWs were reviewed for violations.  Upon researching these policies during the last full week of February, we were astonished to find out that not only were our demands already in district policies, but that district officials, administrators, and staff operated while uninformed of these policies and that they repeatedly acted in violation to those policies over the course of this school year and countless others serving to harm generations of students.

We are acting as a collective body to ensure that our most vulnerable populations and future generations are safe from harm at schools by holding NTPS accountable. The dehumanization of students will continue to occur, as well as systemic racism and rape culture, if we do not unite for change. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, we believe, is ultimately responsible for ensuring the rights of faculty members as well as students in reporting government abuse.  We are aware that OSPI and NTPS have been in contact regarding these matters.  You must act to support students and staff as we continue to fight for our rights. We want our schools and this district to do better so that we don’t have to endure suffering just to receive an education. We ask that you:  

bear witness to our stories; 

use your resources and connections to raise awareness about the abuses and exploitation of BIPOC labor while on strike and in negotiation meetings in which we are doing the work to ensure the district’s compliance with Title VI and Title IX statutes without proper compensation, credits towards graduation, or even positive acknowledgment of the work we are doing while having to be burdened with making up any in-class work missed;

protect us from further harm and retaliation by asserting pressure on agencies/those with the power and authority to terminating the employment and revoking the certification of district level officials as well as administrators at NTPS that are criminally negligent in being uninformed of their own policies and violating policies to the detriment of students;

protect us from further harm and retaliation by asserting pressure on agencies/those with the power and authority to remove from office the school board members who have demonstrated complicity over multiple years in criminal negligence in being uninformed of their own district policies and not holding the superintendent, her cabinet, other district officials, and school administrators accountable; and

donate to our legal defense fund as we pursue a class-action and individual lawsuits   

We have been intimidated, coerced, and forced to abide by demands dictated to us by administrators against our own self-interest. There is an imbalance of power corrupting our public schools particularly when it comes to reporting traumatic experiences that needs to be amended. When we are forced to be silent and to bear the burden of being harmed through race-based and gender-based violence, we internalize feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. This negatively impacts our attendance, motivation, academic outcomes, mental health, and more. When students come to school, they need to feel safe and secure enough to communicate with our mandated reporters about the traumatic experiences students go through. So, consider this trauma as causing students in the strike to be “further impacted by significant disruption to their education,” a circumstance that allows for credits to be waived for graduating seniors, in addition to the strain put on us from the COVID pandemic with buses that don’t show up, substitutes in multiple classes, and our own absences due to quarantine and/or mental health circumstances. 

The student strike (long-term, disruption of schooling) was not a one-day walk out. It was 8 days of protesting where we were repeatedly dehumanized by district officials.  The following is a short and incomplete list of what we experienced.  We were:  

refused the use of restrooms;

left unsheltered in rain and below 40 degree temperatures for hours even when shelter was requested due to inclement weather;

threatened with suspension and the ability to walk during graduation;

unprotected from a hostile parent that made threats as well as racist and lewd comments to strike participants while the SRO and district officials failed to intervene (videos available on social media);

continuously mischaracterized as an unruly, aggressive, disruptive “mob” without apologies or corrections to misleading emails sent to the public;

obstructed in our progress with negotiated demands as district officials continuously failed to communicate with counselors and ALL other staff the terms of negotiations causing confusion and frustration among staff and students;  

treated with malicious retaliation before and during the strike;

treated with discrimination even after returning to classes;

told our signs that we put up during Black Lives Matter in Schools Week/Black History Month that quoted Dr. King and represented the legacy of resistance against Black-oppression were unauthorized and were ordered by the Vice Principal to be taken down.  The custodian who took down the signs also crumpled up the signs, tore the only sign that said Black Lives Matter, and threw them in the trash.  We were not allowed to see footage in its entirety from surveillance cameras;

denied our 1st amendment rights when NTPS officials manipulated the public into believing that our strike particularly impacted students served in the Life Skills program at River Ridge.  The district has yet to retract any of their deleterious emails regarding the students on strike nor have they released the email from all 3 Life Skills teachers defending the BSU students on strike and decrying the use of students in the Life Skills program as an excuse to violate the rights of the student on strike;

subjected to negotiations with district officials that were combative in nature and demoralizing to students.  Abusive administrators continually denied, questioned, minimized, and, in one unfortunate event, the RRHS Vice Principal/Interim Principal Lee-Pope laughed at a student’s claims causing that student severe emotional distress; and

endangered by school and district officials who failed to communicate to the public and to the school community that a threat was made to protestors by a peer that filmed the strike and imported the footage into a first person shooter video encouraging other students to “get a couple m82s and shoot up the protesters like that one part in cod.” The following day at the strike, students saw and reported the same threatening video to adult supporters, unaware that administrators knew of and “addressed” the incident the afternoon before. Adults at the strike took the necessary safety precautions to protect students while a report was being made to authorities. Ultimately, due to lack of communication by administrators and district officials, chaos and harm towards students ensued. Two students had anxiety attacks and were treated by medical staff.  Others were crying and afraid.  The entire group of students and caregivers were traumatized.  The evidence collected from the lockdown supports the above claims.

Here is a breakdown of the District’s response to strike demands with edits, updates, and descriptions in red of other treatment we’ve had to endure:   

We demanded that our schools agree to the following Short-Term Achievable Goals that can begin to build trust and healing before we return to schooling. However, with the recent discovery that our Short-Term Achievable Goals are already written into district policies in some form, our demands evolved.  The district and their representatives have been criminally negligent in abiding by their own governance policies and Washington State RCWs and have been harming students for generations.  Currently, we demand:   

Students participating in the strike must receive accommodations and/or modifications to make-up work missed in their classes With the understanding now that the district was in direct violation of their own policies, all participants in the student strike should receive full credit for engaging in their civic duty to exercise their 1st amendment rights in protest of violations by district officials, school administrators, and staff that disproportionately harmed students from BIPOC and other marginalized communities.  These students should not only receive credit for civics and other social studies courses, they should be awarded credits towards graduation for other social studies credits, leadership, CTE, art, ELA, etc. ;

students and staff participating in the strike will not be retaliated against;  

any teacher, staff, and/or student peer that is proven to have acted in retaliation towards students on strike will be disciplined, provided with equity training, and/or suspended or terminated from the district; 

an agreement to negotiation/planning with BSU students and students who have experienced sexual trauma at schools and stakeholders to plan stop “business as usual” schooling for students involved in the strike for the duration of the year  1-2 weeks during the month of February to address major student concerns at our schools and to plan school-wide/district-wide trainings. Students are not just learning Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetics. There is a 4th R and a 5th R that are silent. NTPS needs to make a commitment to end Racism and Rape culture in schooling. We demand that a commitment is made to dedicate space, money, time, and effort so that all students, staff, and stakeholders can address these community issues so that we can collaborate on community solutions. Outside professional organizations specializing in these issues should be hired with the consent of students. Stakeholders engaging in the process should be compensated (school credit, volunteer hours, a stipend, etc.) if this is not part of curriculum and made to be extracurricular;

students involved in the strike will be provided with the theater commons area or the auxiliary gym at RRHS for the remainder of the school year as their safe place;

they will also be reporting to this safe place for every Advisory/Study Hall between 2nd and 3rd period to meet, build community, disseminate information, organize, plan, receive mental health support, etc.;

students from North Thurston High School and Timberline High School who were involved in their school walk-out and have allied with RRHS BSU will also receive the same opportunities and be transported/allowed to be transported to RRHS  to collaborate on community solutions; and

policies are updated in the students’ rights and responsibilities handbook to reflect district policies.

Long-term Goals we are still pursuing:

A full investigation conducted by the Washington State Department of Justice, The Office of Civil Rights, and/or The Human Rights Commission, of the current and historical issues and management of incidents of racism and sexual harassment at NTPS with the understanding that the failures of this district are failures that are state-wide; and

accountability measures for racial equity, LGBTQIA+, and social justice training for all staff in every NTPS Position. 

Please contact us with your questions, comments, and concerns.   

In Solidarity,     

NTPS BSU members/students impacted by race-based trauma and sexual violence

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