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Rural students of color are fighting back against racism in majority white schools

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Racist bullying on high school campuses is on the rise. The increase comes as more rural residents identify as multiracial and their children are attending majority white schools that can be hostile. KQED's Julia McEvoy reports from one California high school where students of color are taking action.

JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: Jerry Loya is a junior at West County High School in Sebastopol, a mostly rural town of about 7,000. He says since he arrived as a freshman, he's had to deal with blatant racism on campus. One student called Loya her little Indian friend for months.

JERRY LOYA: I am not Indian, you know. I am Black, Mexican and Japanese.

MCEVOY: Loya says he was afraid to speak out at the time.

LOYA: You know, I didn't say anything because I was ashamed of where I was, and I was scared. And I didn't want any backlash.

MCEVOY: Loya's school is two-thirds white. The larger community here in Sonoma County is even whiter.

LOYA: So if you think about it, they can all come against us. And that's a scary thing to think about.

MCEVOY: So Loya put up with it. So have others.

DYLAN PENA PEREZ: I hear racial slurs against Mexicans, Asian Americans, the N-word, most commonly in the boys' restrooms and the hallways.

MCEVOY: Senior Dylan Pena Perez calls it normalized racism, and he says teachers aren't trained to step in, so they contribute to the problem.

PENA PEREZ: They don't speak up in class when they hear other students say racist stuff.

MCEVOY: Last month things really blew up when a racist promproposal (ph) from a white student hit Instagram and made the rounds in the community. Jerry Loya saw the post.

LOYA: It said, if I were Black, I'd be picking cotton, but I'm not, so I'm picking you. It's just blatant racism that - she wasn't even trying to hide it.

MCEVOY: The racism at this high school isn't isolated. Recent data shows about a quarter of all students, ages 12 to 18, saw hate words or symbols written in their schools - things like homophobic slurs and references to lynching. At West County High, after the racist promproposal went public, Principal Shauna Ferdinandson's office phones began ringing off the wall from people throughout the community.

SHAUNA FERDINANDSON: Everybody in every demographic of student showed up, up in arms about what they were looking at.

MCEVOY: But the truth is, this school district has been failing minority students for years. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights took aim at the school in 2016 after another student of color complained of racist bullying. School officials did not do enough to stop the behavior. Ferdinandson had just come in as vice principal then. She says she fully complied with the settlement, building lessons about racism and empathy. She admits progress stalled during the pandemic, but insists she took quick action against the students behind the recent, racist promproposal.

FERDINANDSON: We had consequences around all of that, and we've told everyone that we are dealing with this.

MCEVOY: Student activists are not convinced.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS BLARING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Like, [expletive] racism.

MCEVOY: They organized a sit-in. About 300 students out of some 1,500 walked out of class wearing white T-shirts with anti-racist statements written in red ink. They are clear on what they want - make ethnic studies a graduation requirement immediately and more severe consequences for racist behavior. Students began attending board meetings, calling out school leaders and demanding the trustees remove historic plaques that were donated to the school in 1935 by a group that fought to keep ethnic minorities, especially Japanese Americans, out of California. One of the plaques is embedded in concrete at the entrance to the school.

KATIEANN NGUYEN: These plaques are hurting your students here on this campus.

MCEVOY: KatieAnn Nguyen is co-president of the newly formed Anti-Racist Student Committee.

NGUYEN: It is heartbreaking to me that the students even have to ask for the plaques' removal.

MCEVOY: Older, Asian American community leaders showed up that night to stand with the students.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: How nice to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're very brave, and I'm very pleased to see you take an activist role.

MCEVOY: The school district voted to remove the historic plaques. Nguyen celebrated outside the building.

NGUYEN: It's been hard. There's been a lot of pushback, but I am proud of the community here.

MCEVOY: Jerry Loya says that's great, and they need to be in this for the long haul.

LOYA: This is like a battle. This is a war we have to keep fighting.

MCEVOY: The seniors graduating next month have already handed off their blueprint for activism. For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy in Sonoma County.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.