Students at Charlottesville High School walked out of classes Monday to demand racial justice less than a week after a racist online threat shuttered schools across the city.
The walkout, led by the high school’s Black Student Union, started at noon in McIntire Park and drew a few hundred people, said Zyahna Bryant, president of the organization and a senior at the high school. The protest unfolded after an online threat against black and Latino students forced the closure of schools Thursday and Friday.
Black Student Union members said the incident was emblematic of entrenched inequities and white supremacy in Charlottesville City Schools. Rather than focus on a single threat, Bryant said, the community must address the “whole systems and whole institutions” that perpetuate inequality.
“There cannot be any type of reconciliation without the redistribution of resources for black and brown students,” Bryant said.
The students issued 10 demands that included calls for leaders in the 4,300-student school system to denounce racism against black and brown students, hire more black teachers and overhaul student discipline policies.
About 130 students from Charlottesville High and 21 students from Buford Middle School participated in the walkout Monday, the first day back in class after the shutdown, according to the school system.
Schools spokeswoman Krissy Vick said many of the issues highlighted by the Black Student Union are “presently being addressed.” The group and community members have previously raised the same concerns, she said.
“Their ideas are in sync with our ongoing and current efforts,” Vick said in an email.
Since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for a deadly August 2017 rally that rocked the city, some residents and activists have called on the community to engage in conversations about race and the city’s history with slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.
For students who belong to the Black Student Union, that includes addressing the dearth of black students in advanced classes and school discipline that disproportionately punishes black students.
A 2018 study from the Legal Aid Justice Center found that 7.4 percent of black students in Charlottesville were placed on short-term suspension in the 2016-2017 school year, compared with 1.3 percent of white students.
Althea Laughon-Worrell, 18, said black students, unlike white students at the high school, are not encouraged to take more challenging classes, resulting in segregated classrooms.
“We are continuing this narrative that black and brown students aren’t as smart as white students,” said Laughon-Worrell, a senior.
The Black Student Union, she added, hasn’t received any follow-up since the group met with school system leaders about their concerns in October.
A 17-year-old in neighboring Albemarle County was arrested Friday and charged in connection with issuing the threat. Authorities have declined to describe the threat he allegedly made, but images on Reddit and other social media sites referred to a post on 4chan, an anonymous online messaging board.
The anonymous threat included a racist meme and used slurs to describe black and Latino students. It was posted Wednesday and warned of an “ethnic cleansing” at Charlottesville High the following day.
The suspect has been charged with threats to commit serious bodily harm on school property, a felony, and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor. He is being charged as a juvenile.
Jennifer McKeever, Charlottesville School Board chairwoman, said Monday the board “absolutely denounces racism.”
The school system, she said, has started addressing several concerns voiced by the Black Student Union, including updating security at three schools and giving students who take an African American history class the option to receive honors credit.
McKeever said that although many of the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville in 2017 were not from the city, the events invigorated “honest and difficult conversations.” The district, she said, has hosted sessions to hear from residents about how to “promote equity.”
“It’s clear that the issues that the rallies raised are local — a troubled history, continued inequities and failure to fully see the fault lines of our community,” McKeever said. “Our schools have been working vigorously to address racial disparities for decades but have not consistently seen the fruit that our students of color deserve.”