Hundreds of feet walked together out of Issaquah High School (IHS) last week on April 3. Hundreds of hands carried rain-soaked signs with messages such as “Racism Springs From Ignorance,” “Change is More Than a Retweet,” and “I Have a Dream Racism Stops.”
Hundreds of students took a stand.
A racist photo of two IHS students went viral after the school’s Tolo dance on the prior weekend. The sign read: “(Name of male student)…If I was black I’d be picking cotton, but instead I pick you. Tolo?”
Issaquah students, staff, the school district and the community were unsettled by the photo.
The Issaquah School District and the Issaquah School Board issued statements when the photo surfaced.
“We are deeply troubled, discouraged and, quite frankly, appalled by the racially insensitive social media post involving Issaquah High School students. The words and actions of the students involved are not consistent with our beliefs and values as a district and we are truly saddened by the negative impact this has had on our entire community, particularly our students of color,” Superintendent Ron Thiele said in a statement.
Dylan Hepworth, an IHS senior, said learning of the photo was “disheartening.”
“It was definitely disheartening but I wasn’t shocked,” he said.
IHS students have seen similar incidents in the past. In 2014, some Issaquah basketball players sent racist Tweets to players at Garfield High School in Seattle ahead of a tournament between the two.
For IHS students, “enough is enough,” according to senior and walkout organizer, Engu Fontama.
Alex Liu and Fontama were the two primary organizers of the walkout. A Facebook event was created to spread the word of the walkout, Issaquah United.
“For far too long, Issaquah High School has struggled with issues of racial inequity and racial insensitivity and this generation of students will not allow for this to continue,” the event description said. “The students at Issaquah High School today are choosing to remove themselves from the shadow of some of the ignorance and hate that has come before us and create a new reputation for Issaquah High School. One of equity, kindness and action.”
At 12:15 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, more than 200 students left their classes and walked together, holding signs, to the edge of the school property on 2nd Avenue, despite heavy rainfall.
“It’s OK,” one student said to another using their sign as shelter. “This is worth it.”
The students formed around the hill at the edge of the campus. Student speakers delivered their messages of intolerance to racism, hope for a better future, and a call for change.
“We must not stay silent,” Hepworth said to the students at the walk out. “It’s not OK to see people who think they are not equal… We can’t hesitate in moments of crisis — we must motivate people to stand up and use their voices.”
Fontama also addressed the crowd.
“It starts with being bold. Will you be a passerby, or will you move to action when you witness racism?” she said. “This is a signal for us to rewrite the history of (this school.) We will not repeat these mistakes.”
Leading up to the walkout, school and district officials were informed. Liu said the school and the administration was supportive. While the district allowed the walkout, an Issaquah E-News email sent out to students said all students participating in the walkout would be marked “tardy” per the attendance procedure.
“Students who participate in the walkout will have an attendance record reflect accurately their actual attendance for the day,” the email said.
Following the walkout, Liu said he was happy with the large turnout.
“The turnout gives me hope that things like this won’t keep happening,” he said.
Lauren Campbell, an IHS senior, said she was “ecstatic” at all the support from students, staff and administration.
“It made me feel really proud to feel all the support,” she said. “This (walkout) right here is so rewarding. Makes me feel extremely proud, and honestly, humble.”
The school district is conducting an investigation of the two students in the photo. The students may face suspension or possibly expulsion. During the walkout, the student organizers emphasized that they hope the students’ lives will not be forever ruined by the photo. They said the incident turns into a valuable teaching moment for the students as well as everyone else.