Students in this W.Pa. school district are leading the call for reform after years of unchecked racist incidents

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

By Brian Conway

PITTSBURGH — On June 3, independent of their school district, members of the Thomas Jefferson High School multicultural student union, and the mother of the group’s president, led a peaceful demonstration in the parking lot of the Southland shopping center.

It was both a vigil for George Floyd, the Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, and a stand against a history of racism in their community, more specifically in their school district.

Last month, a 12-second Snapchat video surfaced, showing two area middle school students mocking Floyd’s death. One white boy pins another down, his knee on his neck.

“Please sir, stop it, I cannot breathe, please sir, I am going to die.”

Others laugh in the background.

The June 3 protest Intended for a crowd of 30 swelled to 300. They displayed signs with messages like, “Black Lives Matter” “Pop the TJ Bubble,” and “End Police Brutality,” in solidarity with the student leaders urging peace, unity, and reform. Most wore masks to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a small community like this, you wouldn’t expect as many people to show up, ‘cause when we go through situations at school, people don’t stick up for us. And it’s nice to see that we have a lot of support here today,” said Adia Smith, an incoming senior at Thomas Jefferson High School and member of the school’s multicultural student union.

In conversations before and after the demonstration, several students told the Pittsburgh Current that this most recent racist incident at the affluent school district is just  the tip of the iceberg.

“They mock Black people for fun and they think that they’re going to receive no consequences,” said Zyan Barrett, president of the multicultural student union.

“This is just an example of the kind of things that happen in our school and how they mock Black lives.”

Barrett and others in his 20-member strong multicultural student union say the administration has for years failed to disrupt a culture that turns a blind eye to overt racism and bullying in the school district that leaves many feeling fearful and alienated.

“This is not the first incident that has happened to us, and we’re sick of sitting in silence,” said Smith. “We tried sticking up for ourselves before, but we decided to put it out there more so other people in the community can be aware and be here for the change.”

The Current reached out by phone and email to Superintendent Michael Ghilani several times to request an interview but received no response.

A source informed the Pittsburgh Current that Ghilani wrote to school district staff Thursday morning, June 4, the day after the protest, to inform them to not speak specifically with this reporter for this story, stating that the school district would supply a statement to The Current, but not an interview.

However, the Current never received comment from Ghilani or the school’s PR officer, Carrie Lekse. The Current also made requests for comment from board president, Brian Fernandes, board second vice president, Suzanne Downer, or teacher’s union representative, Jim Benedek. None were returned

“We go through the same thing each and every year, and it’s not getting any better” said incoming senior, Grace Nwabuogu. “I’ve lived in this district for almost 12 years and you would think over a decade, things have changed, but no, they’re still the same. And it’s really heartbreaking because I don’t want little kids who are like me to go through the things I went through in elementary school and middle school and high school. It’s not fair to them.”

‘I hate to talk down on my school’

Eight-or-so stop-and-go miles down Route 51 south of Pittsburgh, beyond Brentwood’s Nepalese markets and the crumbling remains of West Mifflin’s Century III Mall, the neighboring boroughs of Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and West Elizabeth make up the West Jefferson Hills School District.

“I hate to talk down on my school, but I feel that a lot of the time our issues are swept under the rug just to save face and look good for the community,” said Payton Payton, an incoming senior at Thomas Jefferson High School.

According to data submitted by the school district to the state’s Student Assistance Program, Thomas Jefferson High School reported zero incidents of “racial/ethnic intimidation” in the 2016-17 school year; two in 2017-18, and one in 2018-19. There were no student expulsions from the school district during that time.

“When I first got there, they thought I was a drug dealer,” said Barrett, his voice muffled by an N95 mask, before the prayer vigil. “These kids, they asked me to come to their table, and I was like, ’sure.’ And they said, ‘Hey, do you know where we can get that stuff?’ And they said, ‘Aren’t you a drug dealer?”

He and his twin sister, Zyniah, entered the school district as freshman in 2017, along with three other siblings. He says he and his sister’s names both start with a “Z,” and that a pair of white girls in their choir class would call them “ziggers.”

Barrett is an honors student — not too modest to splash his report card and 4.0 GPA on his instagram. He says that early into his time at Thomas Jefferson, he and other Black and minority students in the school district bonded in the cafeteria over being bullied for the color of their skin.

Nwabuogu remembers when Zyan and Zyniah first came to the school district; she was happy to have other students who looked like her, with whom she could connect. She said the pair faced racist incidents almost immediately; things similar to what she faced herself.

Nwabuogu said she has been in the school district since kindergarten. She said she never felt accepted by her peers, and that for a long time she thought it was something wrong with her. She shared with the Current her experience growing up in the school district.

Among her claims were a teacher who did not believe she was being bullied in the second grade, and another teacher in the fourth grade who told her “just get over it.” In the sixth grade, she said a group of girls she thought were her friends called her the n-word behind her back and sometimes to her face, and that the slurs continued in the seventh grade, when she started reporting incidents to the administration because she didn’t know what else to do.

“I just didn’t know how to defend myself.  Even if I tried to speak out, I just felt like I would get shut down.”

Nwabuogu said she has three older siblings who went through the school, all of whom had the same experience as her, though she believes her older brother had it the worst of all.

“And it’s like a snowball effect. It keeps happening and happening over again, like it’s getting passed on to each and every person who went to TJ in my family, and like many other people of color who go to [the school].”

The multicultural student union shared with The Current photos of hate words carved into a table in the school cafeteria, racist memes and social media posts, as well as a photo of 3 white girls, 2 with braces, smiling at home in a mirror, wearing blackface.

“My sophomore year, I actually had a boy, he tried cutting out my box braids,” said, Adia Smith. She wore a yellow shirt with sepia mugshots of Harriett Tubman, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, above a caption that reads, “well behaved women seldom make history.”

“Nothing really happened,” she said. “Half of our situations usually get pushed under the rug, and we don’t want that to happen for upcoming students. That’s why we’re trying to change how it is here.”

In early 2018, after a specific threat of violence against Black students, Barrett said he approached then-principal Sefcheck with the idea of a Black student union, and that Sefcheck’s  reaction didn’t meet the urgency the students believed given the severity of the ongoing incidents.

The Current emailed Sefcheck, now Superintendent at Bethlehem-Center School District in Washington County, to request comment, but did not receive a response.

Barrett shared with The Current a pair of emails he sent to district superintendent Ghilani, the first, dated Feb. 27, 2018, informing him of a racist social media post from a classmate that said, “I’m going to be the next Hitler but instead of gassing Jews I’m gonna drown n——,” among other concerns.

In a follow-up email, dated March 12, 2018, and also addressed to Superintendent Ghilani, he said that he was “ready to take the next step with the M.S.U,” and that “Mr. Sefcheck said it was going to take our club a year to start, but we see the need for it to start ASAP.”

A March 28, 2018 Tribune-Review article referred to the multi-cultural club as “yet-to-be-formed.” The article reports that Ghilani said the district needed to bring in a cultural competency officer because of “specific incidents,” but would not publicly identify them.

The school board voted to allocate an amount no more than $2,000 to Dr. Donald Sheffield, President of TAME, Inc., (Techniques Assisting Motivation and Excellence), to serve as consultant with the district for building cultural competency.

Sheffield was formerly Assistant to the Vice Provost for Outreach and Cooperative Extension at Penn State University, administrative assistant to the late football coach Joe Paterno and director of the Academic Support Center for Student Athletes at Penn State.

At that same March 2018 meeting, Ghilani was quoted by the Tribune-Review as saying, “TJ is a bubble.” One resident, who spoke out against the need for a cultural competency officer, told the board, “Many of us move here to be in a bubble.”

In a follow-up interview the day after the protest, Barrett, on break from his job at McDonald’s, explained by phone that after his emails, there was a meeting between administration and students and parents, but they still felt unsatisfied with the district’s response.

“Throughout that 2017-2018 school year, nothing improved,” said Barrett. “Nothing changed. Nothing happened.”

With the administration dragging its feet, the students met in each other’s homes after school for camaraderie.

“Students had to meet in homes just to be able to get through what they were going through at the school,” said his mother, Williams-Hilton.

It would take nearly another year, and another public incident, before the group was permitted to form. In February 2019, a photo emerged from Snapchat, of a Black student at an adjacent desk, with the caption “These n——, I should hang one by a tree now.”

Nwabuogu says the same boy who took the photo bullied her in the third grade.

Black students and parents were concerned that the administration would brush the incident away, so another parent, Tyiona Davis, of Clairton, confronted the school board at their monthly meeting.

Afterward, Davis and Williams-Hilton met privately with Murphy and Ghilani, among others. At the meeting, administration officials agreed to make changes, including diversity training, and working with students to make the multicultural club happen.

So she backed off.

“I wanted to give the school district the opportunity to begin to create new policies and procedures and activities, but that didn’t happen,” said Williams-Hilton.

“We’re not on that level anymore,” she said. “I have to step above, and have conversations in other rooms. So that’s what we started doing.” She recounted with the Current other incidents that have happened since the 2019 meeting, and a belief that the administration wanted to dictate how the multicultural student union went about its activities.

It took a year, and the threat of lynching, but the students had their club; however, the victory was short-lived. Barrett said he and his peers were met with scorn at school the next day.

“They looked at us as if we were disgusting to them because their school was just put on the news,” he said. “They didn’t know how to handle anything. They didn’t speak to us about it. They didn’t do anything.”

In May 2019, the school district approved two contractors with the Diversity and Respect Campaign to work 9 hours a week between both the middle and high schools, for an amount just under $25,000.

The budget of the West Jefferson Hills School District for 2019-2020 was $55.6 million.

Many of the students who belong to the multicultural student union said there are no Black teachers or administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School, only two Black security guards who work as contractors.

Protesters, mainly made up of students from the West Jefferson Hills School District, demonstrate June 3 at the Southland Shopping Center over the death of George Floyd and what students call the systemic racism in their school district. (Pittsburgh Current photos by Jake Mysliwczyk)

“We recognize there is a lack of diversity in our staff,” Ghilani was quoted as saying at the May 2019 school board meeting. “Our diversity amongst our students is growing. Our staff is not representative of that diversity.”

According to Future Ready PA, the West Jefferson district is 91.8% White, 2.8% Asian, 2.4% Black, 1.3% Hispanic, and 1.7% two or more races.

Back at the protest, Williams-Hilton works the megaphone with the fervor of a testimonial preacher. The vigil ends with a circle of about 10 local preachers reciting a psalm together, prayers for black lives, prayers for reconciliation, and prayers for the health of a local police officer injured in a car wreck earlier that day.

Students from the multicultural student union spoke their piece, as did Cpl. Aaron Allen, of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Equality and Inclusion Office:

“I want to see integrity, things of that nature. I think what’s best for any law enforcement department,” he said after the vigil.

He estimated the crowd to be between 200 and 300 people.

Pleasant Hills Police Chief Brian Finnerty urged protesters to push their elected officials for better training standards, and mental evaluations for police officers. He told the students they were making history.

Volunteers handed out bottles of water and Gatorade to the students, clergy, nurses, letter carriers, fast food workers, and the handful of teachers and counselors in attendance.

Despite fears expressed on local community message boards the event might turn violent, counter-protesters numbered in the single digits. One man wore a “F**k Antifa” T-shirt. At one point, area police stepped between two white men with guns who started to yell at each other.

No one who spoke for this story could recall seeing any member of the school administration at the vigil, other than a counselor. The superintendent released a statement after the recent video emerged of the middle school students saying, in part, “racism and hate have no place in WJHSD.”

The letter ended: “I encourage you to speak with your children about the serious nature of what has happened in Minneapolis and across the country over the past week and to make sure they know the importance of being responsible for what they post online.”

Local resident, Dawn Zacharias, said she wasn’t surprised by the video, but believed it could have emerged out of any similarly situated school district. She has one son in the school district, and has lived in the community since 2005. She held a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

When the most recent racist video emerged, she formed a “TJ anti-racist neighbors for change” Facebook group, which is now up to 200 members.

“If this is our youth in our community, and I believe it’s mostly made up of our community, I think this is a really good sign,” she said about the demonstrators. “Although I know some kids had to sneak out and do this without their parents knowing, they’re the future; their parent’s aren’t.”

As the rally reached its apex, the mood was optimistic. The crowd migrated to a McDonald’s parking lot adjacent Route 51, to wave their signs at passing traffic.  It wasn’t the multicultural student union anymore; it was simply, multicultural.

(Pittsburgh Current photo)

“I’m starting to see the hearts of my peers,” said Barrett.

He said when this latest racist video emerged, “so many people from my school had contacted me and were like, you know, we’re going to stand for you guys.”

One black student who said he didn’t experience racism at TJ was Barrett’s older brother, Darius, a former defensive tackle on the Jaguars football team. Now a student at Clarion University, Darius was in attendance to support his brother’s cause, and said he attended with some of his former teammates.

“There are good people in [the high school]. There are. There are. But it’s just a matter of those good people actually coming out and speaking up,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by his younger brother, Zyant: “There’s a small minority that sometimes influences the majority. So the majority, sometimes they stay silent and they won’t speak up.”

Williams-Hilton hopes that, at the group’s next action, she won’t be involved, and that the students will take charge and continue to spread their message.

“I’d like to see change in the school district,” said Smith, in the midst of the demonstration, her peers waving signs affirming black lives and decrying white silence, while passing traffic blared its support.

“I’d like to see people come together and actually get the time to start to know each other instead of assuming things. Because if you think about it, if we all actually open up, we can all relate to something in a way, and they may not even know it before they start judging us by the color of our skin.”

Brian Conway is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.