Black Student Union Advocates for Improved Racial Equity at D219 Board Meeting


Sophia Lannoye

Niles West BSU members preparing their speeches for the public comment of the December 6, 2022 D219 board meeting

By Sophia Lannoye, Staff writer

Members of the Black Student Union (BSU) at schools in District 219 shared their experiences with racism and presented policy proposals at the board meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Community members wore all black to stand in solidarity with BSU against racism.

“There have been multiple instances regarding discrimination at Niles West, Niles North, and the nine feeder schools in the past few years. Despite the fact that this behavior has become so repetitive and typical it shouldn’t be the norm for our students and it is certainly not acceptable. This includes constant hate speech, slurs, derogatory language and students’ inability to respect others’ differences regardless of what they might be. We are here today to acknowledge the overwhelming presence of racism, but I want to make it abundantly clear that racial intolerance is not where it ends. There are many other marginalized groups at our school that are experiencing similar problems and they deserve justice as well,” senior Bijou Leinbach said.

West BSU president, Cherie Animashaun, led the public comment noting her concern that when she announced that BSU would speak at the board meeting, she was discouraged by a member of the board.

“A board of education member who is present contacted me via Facebook to remind me of a chain of command that exists within the school district and that I should stay complacent within it. While another administrator emailed me to keep my thoughts about the position of Black students a private conversation, rather than voicing it publicly and demanding accountability,” Animashaun said.

Present at the board meeting were board members Naema Abraham, Ignacio Lopez, Elana Jacobs, Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh, Matthew Flink. Niles North’s principal James B. Edwards was also present at the board meeting.

BSU students shared specific policy proposals they would like to see instituted in the district, including the addition of a second equity officer, which they feel will better support the black community.

“We are proposing mandatory training for all staff in the district, so they know how to prevent and respond to hate speech incidents, so they can start healthy conversations, and so they stop reading and using slurs in the classrooms,” Animashaun said. 

A major concern among many black students at Niles West is feeling discrimination from security guards.

“It’s different for us because everything and I mean everything we do we get the security called. If a white group of girls goes to the bathroom, nothing happens; they walk out not disturbed. A black group of girls goes in and all of a sudden all hell breaks out. Security is everywhere ‘Oh my God I need security! Backup! Backup!’ I’m scared,” sophomore Hosaena Rezene said.

Although the district hosts regular professional development for teachers and administration, established a Hate Speech Assessment Team (HSAT), hosted assemblies on hate speech after suspending eight students earlier this school year, and invited Calvin Terrell to work with students at West, Chief Equity Officer Dr. La Wanna Wells acknowledges continued need for anti-bias training. She also indicated that this training is open to security personnel, most of whom are outsourced.  

“If we are seeing [discrimination] with our security staff or any staff, we are gonna need anti-bias training. We have begun opening training for staff but we need to keep it going because nobody should ever feel that way. It’s more though than they shouldn’t be treated that way, but what are we gonna do about it? Also, if there’s any security staff that wants to be trained in equity, all they have to do is email me and they can be trained. We require it, too. We just have to keep going,” Wells said. 

BSU also asked for increased employment and retention of Black teachers.

“[There] is not only a loss of talent in D219, but it directly affects the environment and success of Black students. For the recruitment component, I would like to see a concrete plan, outlining how the district will increase the recruitment of Black staff. I’d also like to see how we plan to keep the amazing talent we have now and what supports are in place for our Black and Latinx staff because the current loss rate of those staff members is alarming,” Animashaun said. 

A common theme throughout the public comment was students feeling that the school is not showing up for them when they need it or properly addressing their concerns.

“We are tired of being called racial slurs in school and it being brushed under the rug. It is exhausting being black at Niles West. Let’s go back to February 18th of this year. There was a walkout held at Niles West in response to the anti-blackness in the school community. This board did not once consider our humanity and reach out in response to our list of demands. We need each of you to consider how your silence adds to the violence we experience at school,” junior Anisa Sebaggala said.

Former board member Jill Manrique was present and also addressed the board during public comment.

“I know every single one of you including the two that were too cowardly to show up today. For the past four years, everyone came in here and told us that there was no anti-blackness problem in District 219, that every student is treated exactly the same and that equity is alive and well here. Well, I will tell you right now as a former board member–the word equity just drags at me because of the way that this board has bastardized that word to mean nothing. I’ve been in open and in closed meetings, all you’ve asked for is ‘What are the kids saying? Are the kids gonna come say something? How are the kids gonna respond to this? We need to hear from the students.’ Well, you heard from the students and they were so sad and so hurt. What else do you need? Do you need them to drag their pain in front of you? You all want to talk about diversity on this board, I said it a hundred times and you can look at the transcripts. Diversity without representation is exploitation and that is what’s continuing to happen here,” Manrique said.

Some Niles West teachers came to the meeting to show support.

“I think we really need more staff members whose sole purpose is to advocate for more equitable practices and policies at our school because right now our staff is overtaxed and doing multiple jobs in efforts to advocate for our students and their needs and people being overtaxed and overburdened is causing people to leave and feel tired professionally and it causes our students to not enjoy coming to school,” West Special Education teacher Elizabeth Dribin-Khoshaba said.

“I’m here because we are trying to get more members from the school to attend more school meetings. We are also aware and invested in many different positions so that we can also be aware of the story that’s being told that we might not be aware of,” West Social Studies teacher Matt Weatherington said. “Our primary reason is to make sure we’re informed as teachers as to what’s going on and to have different representations from each department.”

According to Superintendent Thomas Moore, the issue does not lie within the lack of professional development, but within a deeper issue related to equity.

“I’ve looked at all the developments we’ve done. We’ve done a lot. This is the problem with the metrics; all the metrics say we’re fine–we’re not just fine, we’re better than most other places. But the kids will tell us something different, and it’s up to us to listen,” Moore said. 

Community member Sidney Stein also commented, correcting speakers from BSU on what he called misuse of the term “white supremacy,” which led to a general disruption. After his comments, board president Naema Abraham to ask him to leave the meeting and requested the assistance of security.

The meeting concluded with a statement from Superintendent Moore, promising to confront the issue.

“I’m sorry to each child that spoke, if you want to know who to blame you can blame me. I’m in charge. I took this job. I wasn’t ignorant of the issues that have popped up here over the years. In fact, it’s why I took this job. I wanted this job because I want to make a difference in my life. I’ve only been here 5 months but it’s been 400 years. Racism is the original sin of our country and to each child that spoke, I’m sorry. I can tell you right now I’m not shy about confronting things,” Moore said. “I’m sorry but there is a point where it just comes down to if you [a teacher] hear the n-word in your class and you don’t do anything about it, then this is not the place for you to work. And that’s where we are and we can’t put kids through that. If these kids are within three years when my contract is up and they’re coming forward, you won’t have to vote not to renew my contract because I’ll walk out a failure and I won’t have done what I came here to do. But I promise you inaction won’t be our problem.” 

Ammy Diaz contributed to this story.