John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento is abandoning an annual fundraising auction in which students pay for seniors to perform tasks after classmates said they consider the practice racially insensitive and “all-around wrong.”
Lamari Johnson, a senior and an African American, noted in her online petition that February is Black History Month and that her “ancestors fought for freedom, fought to not be enslaved, sold and separated from their family.”
She wrote that students were making jokes about it, saying, “ ‘Oh hey look. I just bought two slaves,’ which is not OK ... Auctioning off a human is all-around wrong.”
The event has gone on for more than a decade to raise money for the school’s senior ball, and students this year held an auction on Feb. 9.
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Principal David Van Natten said he decided last week to end the tradition in future years after hearing concerns from Johnson and other students, as well as discussing the matter with other administrators.
Van Natten did not know how much money was raised this year. Both he and district spokesman Alex Barrios said participation was voluntary. A student might pay $20, for example, to have a senior carry a backpack throughout the day, said Barrios. Or a senior might during the day have to recite a poem on demand, Van Natten said.
Johnson, 17, said Sunday she started the petition after the auction, after talking to other students on campus and after a teacher she approached did not take her complaint seriously.
Once it was posted, she said she became a target of personal attacks from students who disagreed with the event cancellation.
“I understand some people don’t get it. But it’s also been kind of hard for me,” she said, adding that she “didn’t want to make it just a racial issue.”
The takeaway, she said, “was seeing how important it is to take a stand for something you believe in, even when people are against you because there are so many other people who fought for something. If people didn’t fight for gay rights, if they didn’t fight for civil rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Sonia Lewis, who previously taught history at Kennedy and led the Criminal Justice Academy, said that years ago she shared with her students a global perspective on what it means to auction a “thing” versus auctioning a person. Auctioning human beings, she said, creates a sense of entitlement and discomfort.
“I think when you replace things with people you run the chance of having a slippery slope, of being offensive,” said Lewis, who is a member of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, a group that helped Johnson with the petition.
Lewis said during her five years at the high school, she saw auction episodes that were offensive.
“I don’t care what the race is, I know there are sensitivities that come into play,” she said.
She recalled a case in which a group of students bought a senior, who was not African American, and tied his hands with rope and led him around on a leash all day. On other occasions, she heard students boast repeatedly, “I bought you as a slave for the day.”
“Any time any of those things are going on, I think we have to step back as adults and say this is not appropriate.”
This year, when Johnson met with Van Natten to voice her objections, the principal said he listened and took notes.
Van Natten said that even before Johnson contacted him, he had discussed the idea of ending the auction, raising it with his administrative team last year, his first as Kennedy principal, and again this year.
He said Johnson called the event “insensitive in light of Sacramento’s reputation for human trafficking.” She also was concerned that students were on campus talking about buying other students, and doing that during February, which is Black History Month.
“She felt that for both of those reasons, the event, although it’s a tradition at the school, should not continue.”
As of last week, Johnson’s petition had 167 signatures, according to Change.org.
Van Natten said Thursday that after hearing Johnson’s concerns, he spoke again with his administrative team. Then he notified Kenneth O’Flaherty, the student activities director, that “the event would not continue,” Van Natten said. He said he asked O’Flaherty to advise student government of his decision. He said the word went out on Tuesday that the tradition of auctioning seniors would end.
“The goal is a learning environment that is nurturing, safe and inclusive,” Van Natten said. “And as principal, the buck stops here. I did not feel like this event met those criteria and, hence, my decision it would not go on.”
Van Natten said he has not received any requests for refunds, and seniors have already performed most of the auctioned activities. He said he thinks most students are “over it” by this point.
Nina Jones, a freshman, said Thursday that she was unaware of the auction, but she reacted to the idea.
“That’s a person!” she said, with some indignation. It made no difference to her that that racially diverse people participated.
“It’s still wrong” because of the nation’s history of slavery, said the 15-year-old.
Nancy Luong, a senior, knew only about a counterpetition circulated online by an anonymous person who sought to continue the auction. That petition had 77 signatures last week.
That petitioner said, “Being bought doesn’t even mean anything and the whole thing is just for fun.”
But Luong, 17, said, “I believe that some people have been through so much (racism) already, that it’s impossible to have thick skin.”