• Evi Arthur

Francis Howell School District hosts BLM march seven years after Normandy District debacle


Photo by Evi Arthur

Seven years ago, the Francis Howell School District announced that it would be taking in students from the Normandy School District after it lost its accreditation. Then came the now-infamous town hall meeting where nearly 3,000 FHSD parents came to voice their concerns about the move. The meeting, which has been featured on programs like PBS and Last Week Tonight, was overwhelmingly negative, with many parents expressing worries about their children being stabbed, robbed, or offered drugs. And since FHSD's students are mostly white—only 7.9 percent of FHSD students are African American—and Normandy's are mostly black, it quickly became an issue of race.


Now, race has become a prominent discussion point following the recent deaths of unarmed black people—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—and Black Lives Matter protests have been taking place all over the world. On Tuesday night, FHSD joined the cause. 

The march, organized and led by faculty and staff from all over the Francis Howell School District, took place on Tuesday at 5 p.m. The crowd of about 1,000 started in the parking lot of the Farm and Home Supply on Mid Rivers Mall Drive and continued into the parking lot of Calvary Church, where there was a rally with a handful of speakers and performers, including FHSD parents and students of color, faculty, and performances from the Francis Howell Central Step Team. 


Jani Wilkens, an English teacher at Francis Howell North High School, was the one who spearheaded the idea for a protest. “I felt like we should be doing something to tell our students of color that we hear them and we see them and we support them,” she said.

Wilkens says that, at first, the planned march had nothing to do with what happened with the Normandy School District a few years back. But the closer the march got, the more they realized that it would be good for community change. 


Although the district is making efforts to hire people from diverse backgrounds, Wilkens says there aren’t many applicants of color; she thinks that it is because of the community. “To me, that says the problem is bigger. The problem is our community needs to be a welcoming place,” Wilkens said. “We have to become a community where people of color want to live and want to get a job and work with, right now, people who are predominantly white because those white people care about them.” 


This issue was also highlighted during the rally at Calvary Church. One African American student, incoming junior at Francis Howell North High School Mya Walker, took to the podium to share her story with the audience. “In my 11 years in Francis Howell, I’ve attended three buildings, but I’ve never had a teacher who looked like me,” she said.

 

Walker also shared her experiences in the district with racism from peers, including comments from classmates about “going back to Africa” and classmates using and calling her slurs.

Photo by Evi Arthur

 

Speakers at the rally made suggestions for improving the district’s treatment and support of students of color, calling for more education on black history, a no-tolerance policy for racist remarks and a place to anonymously report those who use them, and hiring more people of color. “Our students deserve to see themselves in our schools,” said Rachael Wilcox, a first-grade teacher at Independence Elementary School. 


Harry Harris, a parent member of the district’s Human Resource Strategic Planning Committee, criticized the district’s statement on George Floyd’s death, saying it was “so safe and sanitized, they even managed to not use the word ‘black’ in it.”


One of the speakers brought up the Normandy town hall meeting from seven years prior: “It was clear nobody wanted black kids being their authentic selves,” said Tiffany Besse, deputy superintendent for instructional services at the Ferguson-Florissant School District and former FHSD teacher. Besse referred to it as a “mistake no one wants to own.” 


However, by all accounts, the organization of the march was a good first step to acknowledging and solving problems in both the school district and the greater community. 

“I think [the organization of this protest] shows good support of the community, and it’s achieving goals that the district had been trying to for a while,” said Megan Clark, a sophomore at Francis Howell High School in Weldon Spring.


Clark’s group of friends, who all go to school together, said that the protest was heavily promoted on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat and that many of their classmates were sharing it.


“It was kind of surprising for me because we’ve had a lot of racist incidents at my school before, and for them to take a step forward and say, ‘Hey, we’re organizing this protest’—it’s just a really big step in the right direction,” said Mallory Abshear, also a sophomore at Francis Howell High School.


“The first change comes in your heart. The second change comes in your home. And the most important change is when you start to affect your community,” Wilkens said. 


A video of the protest is available on YouTube.


Visit the published story here.

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