Students speak up at York NAACP meeting

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

Following two weeks of reports about racially motivated incidents in York County schools, students joined the conversation at Tuesday night’s York County NAACP meeting.

Local chapter president Sandra Thompson asked schools in the county to send student leaders to the meeting at Crispus Attucks to better understand the environment children are trying to learn in.

The local NAACP chapter is trying to implement youth councils at schools throughout the county, Thompson said, relying on the vision and purpose of today’s “aspiring leaders” to effect change.

York NAACP President Sandra Thompson hosts a meeting at Crispus Attaucks to discuss racial issues in York in the past few weeks, Tuesday, November 22, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Students who speak up in class to challenge their teachers and fellow students on inappropriate comments or behavior are leading the conversation in a positive way, Thompson said. These students must teach their friends and colleagues to also speak out in a positive way instead of lashing out, Thompson said.

Eli Weary, a 10th-grade student at the Capital Area School for the Arts in Harrisburg, exemplified Thompson’s point shortly after. In the midst of an argument about the perceived successes and failures of integration, Weary stood up and urged the group to try to understand one another rather than split apart.

“I just want to say that I don’t believe there’s any safety in segregation,” Weary said. “If we split these different ideas apart, there’s no chance for us to look at our brothers and sisters and understand them and have them understand us.”

Several other students spoke out at the meeting, voicing concerns over how their schools’ administrations are dealing with racial incidents in the wake of the presidential election, including hearing racial epithets in the hallways every day, people being spit on and tires being slashed.

Thompson urged students and their parents to document any incidents they are involved in, writing down the names of the people involved, the times and locations of the incidents and gathering any other evidence they can use to show school officials what is really going on.

“If we don’t hear the voice and the pulse of the community, we cannot act,” said the Rev. Bill Kerney, president of the Black Ministers Association.

Rev. Bill Kerney speaks about a recent Black Ministers Association of York town hall meeting concerning racial incidents at York Tech during a York NAACP meeting at Crispus Attaucks, Tuesday, November 22, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Desiree Turner, a student at the York County School of Technology, said racism is a “real issue” at the school, and she feels the administration and many of its students “don’t understand what it’s like to be a black person in this world.”

Larry Turner, Desiree’s father, said she was suspended from school last week for trying to calm down a friend during class. Desiree was told not to talk to the student, and then she was told to sit in the front of the class, which she refused to do, Turner said.

Desiree was sent to the office, and a teacher accused her of cursing at another teacher, leading to the suspension, Turner said, calling the accusation “hearsay.”

Many who spoke at the meeting encouraged teaching students how to act when faced with racial harassment, including York City Council President Michael Helfrich.

York City Council President Michael Helfrich pleads for the BMA of York and the York NAACP to help guide children in how to respond to racisim during a meeting at Crispus Attaucks, Tuesday, November 22, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Though the city does its best to protect citizens from workplace and housing discrimination, there aren’t many protections for children walking the hallways in York County schools, Helfrich said.

“We need to teach our children how to react to these things, because when they react as most of us would want to react, coming back with force, they’re the ones that get in trouble,” Helfrich said, echoing the comments he has heard at meetings across the county.

Helfrich called for a return to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, espousing the power of “calm civil disobedience” and reacting with restraint.

“Many of the adults know what we have to do to move forward,” Helfrich said. “But the kids, they need to be taught that now, for their own safety, for their own future.”