Protesting racism at Beacon, NYC students say officials will meet their demands

Beacon high school agreed to begin holding joint student, parent, and staff meetings, after students organized a sit-in Monday to protest discriminatory comments allegedly made by a senior about college offers that students of color received.

The protesting students, who took to the hallways of the sought-after Hell’s Kitchen school, said the incident was not isolated, and they blamed the school’s staff for enabling racist behavior. They issued a set of seven demands, including asking the school to issue a public apology “for allowing racism to fester over the course of years.” 

Outside of Beacon on Monday afternoon, students told reporters that they met with school and education department officials during the day and that they agreed to meet student demands in some way. They will not boycott classes on Tuesday. 

“I think that, as students, we have no choice but to hold each other accountable, and the first step to solving this issue is to change the culture at Beacon,” said Adrian Perez, a junior and one of the organizers of the protest. “I referred to it in the administration meeting, that Beacon has cancer. The racism in the school is a tumor, and until we diagnose that tumor as a community we will never be able to surgically remove it.”

Anger about racist incidents at Beacon — a highly selective school whose students are nearly half white — has been steadily growing, according to students, and has erupted more recently as student-led integration efforts have gained traction. Last month, several students with the advocacy group Teens Take Charge walked out in protest over the school’s disproportionately white demographics in a city where nearly 70% of public school students are black or Hispanic. 

Monday’s boycott is just the latest show of solidarity against racist incidents inside of New York City private and public schools – including at the highly selective Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the city’s Upper East Side.

Monday’s action was sparked by an incident last week where a white student allegedly complained to guidance counselors about not getting into her college of choice and was reportedly overheard making belittling comments about students of color getting in because of affirmative action, according to the New York Post. That student, according to the report, is now being subjected to online threats and told the Post her comments to guidance counselors have been taken out of context. 

Beacon United Unions, the coalition of student unions that issued the demands, asked the school to investigate the guidance counselors who were part of that incident to determine if racial bias may have affected their job performance and interactions with students. They also asked the school to make serious efforts to diversify its counseling staff — on top of asking for more teachers of color in core classes. 

Beacon’s principal Ruth Lacey met with students on Monday and pledged to continue discussions on how to make the school more supportive for all students and staff, education department officials said. The school is expected to gather for a student assembly by grade level on Thursday, jointly held by students and administration. The school also plans to hold regular joint meetings between students, PTA, and administration.

A department official said that Alan Cheng, the district superintendent, would support the school through implicit bias training, restorative justice efforts, and culturally responsive education. He also pledged to investigate reports of bullying and staff misconduct, education department officials said. 

Perez told reporters that protesting students asked the administration for more details about last week’s incident, but they refused to offer more details, only saying that an investigation is ongoing. 

“Students and staff at Beacon deserve a safe, supportive and inclusive school, and Principal Lacey has clearly communicated to students, staff, and families that she takes these concerns seriously,” said Miranda Barbot, a department spokesperson, in a statement. “While we investigate allegations about an incident last week, we will support the school community’s efforts to foster a welcoming learning environment for everyone.”

Instead of attending class, students filled the school hallways to participate in “teach-ins,” held by leaders of different student union representatives to talk about racial discrimination and how to resolve conflict. The Muslim Student Union, for example, passed out blank pieces of papers and asked their peers to write down anonymously a time they were discriminated against at or outside of Beacon, said Sama Al-Alami, a senior and leader of the Muslim Student Union. They shuffled up the papers and passed them out, so that students read each other’s experiences out loud. 

“A lot of people came up to us, came up to me, to say how great that was,” Al-Alami said. 

One of the most powerful moments, students said, was watching their peers enter school in the morning dressed in all black — a symbol of solidarity with the protest. They believe that a majority of students boycotted classes on Monday, including those they weren’t necessarily expecting at the teach-ins. Even the “goofiest person” was shushing their neighbor during one teach-in so they could participate, said Chinyere Brown-McVitie, a junior who leads Beacon’s Black Students Union. 

There were teachers who decided to push back their class assignments and talk about the issues highlighted by student leaders on Monday, students said. And during a staff meeting, all teachers heard speeches from the seven students who attended the meeting with administration officials, Perez said. 

“It was almost moving because a lot of teachers started crying,” Perez said. “Because again this isn’t just a Beacon issue or student issue, it’s a tumor in our school and that tumor affects every single person in our building.”