The cars didn’t always slow down on State Route 146 as activists on July 25 marched down the Clifton Park thoroughfare to support the lives of Black students – and other marginalized students.
Samira Sangaré, who organized the event with her brother, was joined by some of her white friends from school as they walked from Clifton Park Commons to the sprawling Shenendehowa schools campus. They were uncomfortable, she said, But being uncomfortable was part of the point.
“I just let them know that when we felt unsafe on 146 that whole time, that’s how we feel all of the time,” Samira Sangaré said of her experience growing up as a Black girl in Clifton Park. “That’s how it needs to be. You have to be uncomfortable.”
Samira, who graduated from Shenendehowa High School in 2016, and her brother TJ Sangaré, a 2019 graduate, organized the march, which also served as a platform for Shenendehowa students and alumni of color as well as LGBTQ students to share stories about their experiences in school, experiences that ranged from ignorant and hurtful comments to persistent and targeted harassment.
Since the march and “speak out,” the Sangarés have pressed a policy agenda with Superintendent Oliver Robinson and the district school board. The agenda calls for an increased focus on supporting marginalized students through a curriculum overhaul, expanded staff training and community engagement.
“Despite its reputation for excellence, Shenendehowa Central School District has not been a safe, affirming district for BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA+ students,” the Sangarés wrote in an online petition outlining their policy demands, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. “We, current and former students do not feel that out humanity has been honored and we feel we have been robbed of something many students take for granted – and education that affirms our identities through the curriculum and the school community.”
The petition, which has garnered nearly 2,000 online signatures, outlines 11 policy demands for the school district, including the creation of a diversity committee made up of students, faculty, staff and community members; a district audit for disproportionate disciplinary outcomes; expanded anti-racism training for teachers and staff; an increased focus on supporting trans and queer students, and; the explicit prohibition of the Confederate flag from school grounds.
“I don’t know why these ideas have to be so radical,” Samira said of their demands. “It is clear when you read these demands our needs are not met.”
The students and young graduates represent an emerging source of pressure on school districts as recent graduates and current students inspired by a wave of activism forged in the pandemic turn their attention to tangible policy demands.
A coalition of young graduates in Broadalbin-Perth have spoken out in recent months about experiences they had as students, including racist remarks against students of color, and called for new initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion – stirring a lengthy back and forth with the superintendent there.
In both Shenendehowa and Broadalbin, the young adults have borrowed from the tactics of activists – pressuring elected and appointed officials by gathering petition signatures and letters of support, holding rallies and highlighting the stories of people facing systemic problems – and appeared to frustrate district administrators who argue they are largely doing the work the young people are asking for.
After the Sangarés emailed hundreds of Shenendehowa teachers asking for their support and organized distribution of a flier asking supporters to make public comments at the next school board meeting, Shenendehowa Superintendent Oliver Robinson reached out and said their “tactics are questionable.”
“So, before spamming email, please read and understand the record. While this system we call Shen is not perfect, we are certainly proud of the steps taken and the progress made,” he wrote the Sangarés, according to messages shared with the Gazette. “There is no time for genuflecting, conservative pluralism or overzealous liberalism. And certainly, there is no time for the ‘crab in the bucket’ mentality.”
Robinson, one of the longest-serving superintendents in Capital Region, and one of the only Black district leaders in the region, earlier in the week in a detailed response sent to the young alumni countered each of the demands laid out in the petition with an explanation of ongoing and forthcoming initiatives in the district.
He pointed to existing committees and policies, investments in providing all students access to the PSAT, training opportunities for educators, books studies and a long-central goal of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students. He acknowledged the district could improve in some areas raised by the students and highlighted upcoming efforts: making the district’s equity committee more forward facing; purchasing new texts about Black history; conducting a “culture” survey among students; an expansion of anti-racism training among English and social studies teachers.
Robinson said the “time is ripe” for potentially adding classes in African American history, women’s history and social justice at the high school level, and he said “more work needs to be done” to include the LGBTQ experience in the school curriculum.
But the young graduates were not swayed by Robinson’s assurances the district is already doing much of what they have asked for. They argued if those initiatives were really meeting their espoused goals they and other students wouldn’t have the kinds of experiences they have shared in recent weeks.
“They keep saying they are doing this, this, and this, but if students aren’t feeling that then obviously it’s not working and it’s not effective enough,” TJ Sangaré said.
In some places, the Sangarés thought Robinson’s response was misleading. In his response, Robinson said the district annually scrutinizes its data for disproportionate outcomes among student groups and suggested the district “does not show any disproportionate trends.”
While Shenendehowa had smaller racial disparities in student suspensions than other area districts, Black students were still 3.4 times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates during the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year of suspension data reported to the federal Education Department Civil Rights Data Collection. Black and Hispanic students have somewhat lower graduation rates than other students in the district and graduate with an advanced Regents designation at lower rates than their classmates, according to state data.
During the 2016-2017 school year, the district employed two Hispanic teachers and four Black teachers, less than one percent of the overall teacher work force and about one-tenth the share of what Black and Hispanic students represent in the district.
With around 10,000 students, Shenendehowa is the largest suburban district in the Capital Region. About 76 percent of the district’s students are white, according to data from the 2018-2019 school year; 11 percent Asian American; 6 percent Hispanic; 4 percent multiracial, and; 3 percent Black. The small percentages, though, obscure the scale of students: the district served nearly 250 Black students and over 2,000 total students of color.
Robinson declined an interview through a spokesperson Thursday, but he did provide a statement noting his response to the petition’s demands and said the district’s work on equity and diversity “is far from complete and perfect but the commitment is sincere.”
“While we may be coming from different perspectives and different experiences, we are all in this fight together,” he said in the statement. “The problem of social injustice and racism isn’t about a ‘one and done’ solution. It is an ongoing, strategic effort to dismantle discriminatory practices and protocols, shift societal narratives and ultimately facilitate ongoing collaborations to ensure equity in opportunities and outcomes. I applaud the efforts of those young adults. I stand firmly behind endeavors that are right and righteous.”
Some of the district’s current and recent students opened up about their struggles publicly during last month’s rally and march.
Jasiri Danjou, a rising sophomore, said as a Black trans student in Shenendehowa schools she has faced persistent harassment and bullying, facing a toxic brew of transphobia and racism. She said since coming out as trans at the beginning of eighth grade she has been the brunt of jokes, ignorant comments and threatening harassment; some teachers have failed to acknowledge her identity and preferred name. While some of her harassers have faced suspension, she said the district needs to expand how it teaches students about gender identity, sexual orientation and queer history – “You can only do so much reporting,” she said, noting its “exhausting” spending time explaining to counselors the details of so many incidents with other students.
“That’s not any kind of education,” she said of suspending kids. “(The district) should be letting these kids know what they are doing is wrong and helping them unlearn the wrong ideas they have about me.”
She said the districts should teach a more inclusive and expansive history and focus on topics of gender identity and sexual orientation starting at a young age.
“I think including queer history within our education system is a very big step for people to take for people to understand where we come from,” she said.
Danjou also faces the challenges other Black students face in the district, while sometimes feeling dismissed by Black students too.
“I have my Blackness pushed aside, because I’m trans,” Danjou said.
Ashley Wood, a 2017 graduate who joined the July rally, said she often felt ostracized as one of the few Black students in school. She said she never had a Black teacher, attending schools in the district since the start of kindergarten, and that she learned a shallow version of Black history in school — “Martin Luther King good, Malcolm X bad,” she said.
She remembered an experience during German class when a student made a hateful comment about Trayvon Martin, a young Black man who was killed in Florida, adding that neither Martin nor her life mattered because they were Black. During a project where students crafted visual translations of German fairy tales, a team of students used Confederate and Nazi images in what Wood said was clearly harassment directed at her.
“I was basically told to be the bigger person, these things happen in life,” Wood recalled of the response from school leaders. “I’m in school, it should a safe space. I shouldn’t have to deal with these things.”
Like Danjou, Wood emphasized the importance of expanding the curriculum and using education as a tool to foster a more inclusive culture beginning at an early age.
“These stories are not originals,” Samira Sangaré said. “They are everywhere.”
When TJ Sangaré was a high school sophomore he tried to get the Confederate flag banned from school grounds – a symbol multiple students said they have seen among other students throughout their time as students.
In response to a student wearing the flag on a shirt, TJ urged school administrators to explicitly ban the flag. He said he was ultimately told that the district couldn’t restrict the flag because there were not enough Black students in the district for it to be considered a disruption to education.
“I was not asking the student to stop wearing the flag, I was asking them (school officials) to ban the flag,” he said. “You cannot protect students and make sure students are not being harassed by waiting for a student to make a complaint after being harassed by someone threatening their existence.”
District officials point to an anti-harassment policy and a code of conduct prohibition against students wearing or displaying symbols that are “culturally (race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status) derogatory, offensive, or divisive” or items that “denigrate others because of race, color, religion, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability” while on school grounds or in school activities.
TJ Sangaré said the experience diminished his view of his personal agency in making local change — the opposite of what the schools should be doing, he said.
“I didn’t really realize I had a voice,” he said. “I felt that was the end-all, be-all of whatever they said went.”
But like scores of other young activists around the region he and his sister have found their voice and don’t plan to quiet anytime soon.
“You should be apologizing and asking what else you need to do for us. You are working of us, we pay for you to work for us, so when we ask for help you have to take it seriously,” Samira said of her message to district leaders. “The previous generation has failed us. We need to re-traumatize ourselves for everyone to understand how serious this is, how important this is for us.”