The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Growing sense of despair’: A wealthy, diversifying school system in suburban D.C. confronts racism and hate in schools


In some hallways and classrooms, students hurl racist slurs and insults at students of color. One teacher told a U.S.-born student to go back to their country. Nooses have been hung from trees at one school’s entrance, and Ku Klux Klan members have visited campuses.

Loudoun County is one of the most affluent places in the country, home to high-caliber schools in the D.C. suburbs. But for some, it is also a place where school leaders ignore racist acts, fostering a “growing sense of despair,” according to a report commissioned by Loudoun County Public Schools that examines equity across a school system that has rapidly grown and diversified in the past decade.

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The experiences of students of color in the Northern Virginia school system were culled from focus groups and interviews with several hundred students, teachers and staff at two dozen schools conducted by the Equity Collaborative, a national consulting firm.

The company concluded that school system employees have a “low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy” and that people were fearful and unsure of how to talk about race.

The perception that spewing hurtful words has few or no repercussions forces students into a “hostile learning environment,” the report said.

In August, Superintendent Eric Williams issued a statement condemning white supremacy and other forms of hate, apparently heeding the first of four primary recommendations in the report.

“When students and staff experience racial insults, slurs, and/or other hate speech, we lack the positive culture and climate that supports students’ growth,” Williams said in the statement, adding that the school system “rejects racist and other hateful behavior and language, recognizing that it encourages discrimination, hatred, oppression, and violence.”

In an interview, Williams said he commissioned the assessment because of concerns over equity, including opportunity gaps for students, a desire to build a more diverse workforce and instances in which students were subjected to “racial insults or slurs.”

“The report’s disturbing, and it’s really sad,” the superintendent said. “We can and we should and we must do better.”

The system, which educates nearly 84,000 students, hired a director of equity this school year and has added more teachers at schools with large populations of English-language learners or students from low-income families.

School board members, teachers, parents and community organizations have formed a committee to examine equity issues and will review the school system’s policies on nondiscrimination and student discipline, said Brenda Sheridan, a school board member who chairs the Committee on Equity.

Sheridan represents the Sterling District in Loudoun, an area that includes the county’s most economically disadvantaged campuses. She has long believed that the school system should address socioeconomic inequities in Loudoun, the wealthiest county in the nation, she said, but was surprised to learn about the racial issues affecting schools.

“We have a really huge race problem in our school system — how we talk about race and how our students talk to each other,” Sheridan said. “There’s all sorts of things that create our biases, and we have to be aware of them so we don’t put them on others, so that we can be impartial when we talk to our students.”

The attention to equity in Loudoun is unfolding during a period of significant growth in the county, which has prompted the opening of campuses in recent years.

The school system has also diversified significantly in the past decade — white students make up 46 percent of enrollment, a drop from 63 percent in the 2008-2009 school year. Asian students are 23 percent of Loudoun’s school population, Hispanic students 18 percent, black students 7 percent, and 6 percent are multiracial, school system data show.

The report also illustrated disparities in achievement among student racial groups and those who are English-language learners or who have disabilities — gaps that have persisted in school districts throughout the country.

Other school systems in the Washington region, which boasts some of the highest-performing public schools in the country, have also made tackling inequities a priority.

Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest school district in Virginia and among the biggest in the country, has added positions dedicated to equity at each school. School leaders in Montgomery County, Md., launched an online report card this year that assesses how well schools are preparing “students who have not experienced the same level of access, opportunity or success as other students.”

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Leaders with the Loudoun NAACP have pressured the school system in recent years to address persistent issues faced by students of color, including the underrepresentation of African American students in advanced classes and at the Academies of Loudoun, a $125 million specialty school that opened in 2018.

The inquiry into equity in Loudoun was conducted in the spring, a couple of months after an outcry over a game in which elementary school students simulated moving through the Underground Railroad . School officials apologized for an exercise that trivialized slavery.

That incident, among others, led the school system to take action, Williams said.

Students shared several instances of racism they experienced, which were cited anonymously in the report, including:

“Kids are always getting on me about my skin color and my hair. They . . . call me the N-word and my teacher just turns the other cheek.”

“There was something in a book about Arabs and the teacher said — All Arabs are terrorists. I raised my hand and said ‘I am Arab and I am not a terrorist.’ She just stared at me.”

“One of my teachers told me to go back to my country. I was in shock. I was born here.”

Some educators said they do not feel the need to discuss race; one said they “don’t see color.”

Another said, “I really don’t have a lot of time to do that work and I also teach high level classes, so I don’t have those kids,” according to the report.

Other educators said it is not clear what support is available to students and families who are victimized. One person said teachers of color fear retaliation for reporting an incident or raising concerns about how a situation is handled.

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