“I stand with Rachael.”
That was the rallying cry from speaker after speaker at a Tuesday night meeting on race at Sheldon High School in Sacramento.
About 500 parents, students, teachers and community activists offered more than four hours of emotional, sometimes tearful, testimony about their experiences with racial discrimination at an Elk Grove Unified School District board meeting.
The discussion came after Pleasant Grove High School senior Rachael Francois talked to The Sacramento Bee about racially charged incidents at the Elk Grove school. She came forward after a video went viral on social media featuring hate-filled remarks about African Americans from another Pleasant Grove student.
Francois said the N-word is commonly used on campus. She has had it screamed at her from a car filled with white kids while walking home from school. She listed other incidents when the word was used and, in one case, threats were made against African American students.
She said complaints to the district didn’t result in change, although officials said they had taken steps to address her concerns.
Members of the audience thanked Francois for being brave and coming forward with her complaints. They resolved to take on the fight from here.
“We’ve got this, Rachael,” repeated more than one person at the microphone.
Among them was Lorreen R. Pryor, president of the Black Youth Leadership Project and a Valley High School graduate. She said the organization will track complaints about racial discrimination in the district and urged students to inform the group when they are mistreated. Pryor said the organization would support parents and go with them to discuss complaints with administrators.
“I’m disgusted and appalled about the treatment of black students within the Elk Grove Unified School District system,” Pryor said. “... We need to make sure Rachael is supported.”
Nearly 13 percent of the district’s 63,000 students are African American, according to state data from last school year. The district’s student population is remarkably diverse. Asian American and Filipino students account for 29 percent, Latino students comprise 26 percent and white students are 21 percent.
Elk Grove Unified board members and Superintendent Christopher Hoffman vowed their support.
“We want our students to feel safe and valued,” board President Nancy Chaires Espinoza said. “We will listen and hope your words energize our work.”
Francois was asked to lead the “Pledge of Allegiance” at the start of Tuesday’s meeting and met with a standing ovation after she thanked supporters during a public comment period.
“I need to feel, as a student at Pleasant Grove High School, protected and right now I don’t feel that way,” Francois said. “We need to see what the next steps are going to be.”
Other speakers urged support for all the “Rachaels.” Many brushed aside any suggestion that racial intolerance and discrimination is a new problem at district schools. They demanded more racial diversity in school staff and cultural competency training for students, staff and administrators.
Speakers also expressed frustration over what they see as a lack of notification whenever racially charged incidents happen at schools. “When kids are late, we get a text message or phone call; when racism and discrimination happens on campus, we do not get notification,” said Les Simmons, a pastor and community activist.
They vowed to organize voters and vote the board out or boycott the school district if changes are not made quickly.
“We want you to understand when we say we are tired, we are tired,” said Allegra Taylor, of SAC ACT, a Sacramento-area advocacy organization. She pointed at the school board on the stage. “You’ve been sitting there for four hours and you think you’re tired. Can you imagine how tired we are?”
Taylor said that by not protecting African American children, the district and the city are not obeying the law. She vowed to organize African American parents to volunteer at schools, so they will have a presence on campuses. “We are prepared to step up to the plate to protect our children,” she said.
The board will discuss the testimony from the meeting at its next scheduled board meeting on Jan. 24, Espinoza said Wednesday.
“I was very encouraged that so many parents, staff and community members came out to be part of the solution,” Chaires said. “I expected to hear a little tough love and we did.”
Race issues in Elk Grove haven’t been confined to the schools. Recent incidents include the spray-painting of KKK on an apartment building and a note left at an African American business warning of a “coon hunt.”
The city has held a series of meetings and hired a consultant to try to address racism in the community.