It’s not our job. It shouldn’t be our job. But with the way the world is looking today, it may very well have to be our job. Generation Z has been burdened by a number of crises handed down to us: the fight against climate change, the hefty obligation to reform our justice system, and more recently, events of racism that have shaken the nation into division. The alarms of police brutality and systematic racism have been ringing for decades, but it’s only now that many are beginning to wake up and analyze their privilege or lack thereof. With this said, the feelings of pain, betrayal, and loss of self are a reality for many Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As the school year approaches, many of us are pondering how the culture of our schools will or won’t have been impacted by this new-found sensitivity to racism. Will discrimination perpetrated by our peers intensify? Will we be prodded with questions of whether a comment or opinion is valid or has our “approval” as BIPOC? More importantly, do our educators and administration in schools understand the necessity of anti-discrimination policies, especially now?

As racial tensions increase throughout our nation, a parallel culture grows in high schools. To put it simply, schools can easily foster norms of overlooking discrimination depending on the actions taken by administration to discipline and educate students on such inappropriate behavior. In my school district specifically, the efforts (or lack thereof) of staff and admin to acknowledge racism in the student body has put students, especially BIPOC, in an unfortunate position. Similar to many other rising juniors in high school, academics are among my main priorities. College is approaching, and planning for what my future may hold is slowly beginning to consume every second I get away from any school-related work. But this goal of focusing solely on our individual futures becomes more and more difficult as the burden of collectively addressing acts of discrimination grows. 

As a student, I should be able to focus on my education and strive to fulfill my passions. But nowadays, students like myself have had to take up what should be the work of adults, whether this be developing lessons that will be taught in classes about race, or holding our peers accountable through speaking up against discriminatory behavior while some adults sit and watch. Though it is at times fulfilling to see that others are being educated and learning from students, it can get lackluster. In my school, we’ve been meeting with administration, staff, and fellow students in hopes of educating them on the need for better handling of the racism that takes place in schools. Not only is this emotionally draining, but it’s discouraging, as this seemingly endless cycle of volunteering repeats. Students speak up about an incident and communicate it to an admin, an admin acknowledges our thoughts and asks us for solutions, we provide potential solutions expecting further action to be taken, and then—it is thrown under the rug. The cycle repeats. It’s understandable that racial tensions arise from misunderstandings and that the judgement of any group of human beings can be flawed. But this is precisely why protocols made specifically for preventing injustice and racism in schools are so vital. And, if such protocols fail to create a culture of zero-tolerance for hate, more significant reforms must be considered. 

The current protocol, followed by many schools in Washington State where I live, is called HIB: Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. Every school year, students are taught that this accessible way of reporting is key to creating a culture free of discrimination and hate. Personally, as a Black student in a majority White and Asian school, I liked the idea of a system to make reporting a racist incident quick, simple, and effective. Unfortunately, the efficacy of this system has been questionable. Within it, students simply have to fill out a HIB report form, submit it anonymously (if preferred), and get updated on how the situation was handled (if applicable). The problem with this is that little action seems to be taken. Historically, as incidents of racism were reported, such incidents seemed to continue to occur afterwards. This system does seem to be successful in red flagging schools with constant reports of racism, but there seems to be a grey area regarding specifically how such incidents are handled. If such reports are delivered to the administration of that high school rather than the superintendent of the district or even an equity department, the means by which these situations are handled are left simply to those individuals. It is important to consider the following: discipline and education is being left in the hands of those who can have their personal biases easily come into play.  Events of racism should not be taken lightly — a system must be in place for taking action against race and identity based discrimination. The unfortunate status quo is that oftentimes, this does not happen, leaving students to suffer alone and take things into their own hands. 

With the mental health of BIPOC on the line, this nationwide problem in our schools is one that needs to be addressed now. But as the notorious Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg articulates it, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”  COVID-19 has forced many school districts, such as my own, to pursue online learning. For many students, anxiety and fear about what’s to come are overwhelming. So instead of our typical school days, we will be hiding behind screens. This may encourage many to act without the fear of disciplinary action. 

During the last few weeks of my online learning in the 2019-2020 school year, an individual had the audacity to enter the online meeting of a class he wasn’t part of and yell a number of derogatory terms and hate speech, specifically the N-word. Although I was not there to witness this event directly, I can say that a lot of my peers were in shock. Many BIPOC students, including myself, have been shattered by this growing trend of open, racist hate. Our learning should not be put on the back burner simply because we have to worry about sticking up for ourselves and educating others on our history. But we’ll keep doing it. We recognize true change will take time. Reform will take time. But for now, I encourage students to come together and think creatively about how to tackle this pandemic of racism that has once again bubbled to the surface. Change starts with collaboration and acknowledging the truth. Take inspiration from students in my school district who created an Instagram account documenting the experiences of BIPOC, which has awakened many: @blacknqueeratbsd. No longer can we simply rely on adults to enforce the change we want to see. We must learn to rely on each other. We must hold one another accountable and never be afraid to speak our truth. 

Sincerely, 

Your friendly neighborhood change agent 

Lauren Kirkpatrick is a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue, Washington. She’s fascinated by the power of words and hopes to teach others the significance of their voices. With her ability to march to the beat of her own drum, she strives to think outside of the box to establish true change. Add in her heart of gold, impeccable dance moves, and ability to break into song at any moment and it’s clear that she’s a pretty cool human being. Lauren hopes to uplift others through her storytelling, and is inspired on the daily by the many talented writers in the Next Gen Politics family.

Art Credit: https://www.deviantart.com/jane-beata/art/Frustration-323898032