H-F parents forum seeks healing, ideas after racist incident

Homewood-Flossmoor High School administrators and staff are continuing their efforts to help the school community deal with the aftermath of a racist incident involving four students late in April.

On Tuesday, H-F hosted the first of two forums for parents of current students. The next forum will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 20.

The message from both administrators and parents at the first forum was that better communication and more cultural education are the best tools for healing and moving forward.

The Homewood-Flossmoor community was shocked on April 27 when a video of four white students in blackface harassing a black fast food worker was posted to popular social media pages. 

Students and parents were outraged by the video. Many demanded the school take immediate disciplinary action and were frustrated when school officials declined to specify what action they would take.

Administrators said the Tuesday forum was intended to provide as much information about the incident as is legally allowed, to answer parents' questions about the school's response to the incident and to elicit parents' recommendations for how to move forward.

Superintendent Von Mansfield noted that "we have not had a map for how to deal with this." He said other districts might simply have turned the matter over to police, but H-F is taking the approach that involving the whole school community in the process will make the incident a learning opportunity.

He noted that while diversity is a strength of the H-F community, it's a characteristic that presents social complications not found in heterogenous communities.

"We live in a diverse community. We work through the challenges that diversity brings," he said. "It's not the last time (students) are going to have to deal with this type of incident."

He and Principal Jerry Anderson, who are both black, told the parents during introductory remarks that they are deeply empathetic with the students who remain upset about the incident. 

Anderson said she experienced a similar incident when she was attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was walking past a fraternity that was holding a Southern Days celebration that included students wearing blackface and hanging effigies of black people.

Anderson said she was angered by the display and participated in petitioning the university to take action, much as H-F students did Tuesday, April 30, with a 30-minute walkout and rally to express their feelings about the blackface incident here.

After brief introductory remarks from administrators, parents and staff split into small groups and gathered in classrooms. The small group meetings used a circle discussion structure common in restorative practices to ensure that everyone would have opportunities to speak and would feel safe speaking freely. 

Anyone who was reluctant to speak was invited to submit questions and recommendations in writing. 

After the discussion session, parents were invited to stop by the cafeteria for refreshments. A couple of parents shared their observations.

Ebony Roberts said her questions about the incident and the school's response had been answered the week before, but she came to the forum to find out how she could participate in changes that are needed. 

She said she pledged to be more involved. 

"What I would like to see going forward is more participation from the parents," she said. "This was a very low attendance for something that the community was shaken to the core from."

School officials said 120 parents had sent RSVPs to the event. They estimated about 50 attended.

Roberts also said she hoped the school would find ways to give students more opportunities to converse with each other and resolve differences.

Malik Hampton shared that hope, noting that the incident suggests the community and the school need more opportunities for multicultural exchange.

"I think of Hyde Park. Very diverse. There are people from all nationalities. Or Evanston. They have art festivals all the time," he said. "Art is an expression. Music is an expression of culture which exposes you to other cultures in an indirect fashion. If that's not done, or if only one culture is done, then people become disconnected."

He also suggested the school make changes to curriculum that would provide a stronger focus on cross-cultural understanding.

"Start it at fifth grade, so parents are used to dealing with diversity fairs and functions," he said. "Make it mandatory. Not just African American studies. Have Jewish studies so people learn about the Holocaust. Have Native American studies. Teach how we have come to be the people we are."

Regarding the blackface incident itself, Roberts said she still believes for there to be some resolution, the boys involved should make a public apology. 

"Those boys are still children. Now let's educate them," she said. "Yes, they knew right from wrong, but did they know in its totality how it would affect them? No. They affected lives."

Mansfield said many H-F students were shocked and angry in the days following the incident, but he thinks the discussions with administrators and staff and among students have helped. 

"I think at this point, students are still very disappointed," he said, but the fact that they are talking it through is a good sign.

Parents of current students who wish to attend the second forum can call 708-799-3000, email [email protected] or reserve a place at the H-F website.

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