CR high school students protest against racial injustice

A small group protest in front of Caesar Rodney High School in Camden on Wednesday. (Submitted photo)

CAMDEN — Though schools have been closed for months, a group of Caesar Rodney High School students returned to their campus Wednesday and gathered outside with signs in protest of racial injustice.

“We have to keep doing it or we’re not going to be heard,” said Sanaa Watts, a recent graduate of the high school who organized the protest.

She and four friends came together in a group chat on Instagram with the goal of putting on a protest after the district’s response to national protests and outcry about racial injustice following the death of George Floyd May 25 in Minneapolis while in police custody.

About a week after the district’s original message stating “it is critical and essential that every person in the Caesar Rodney School District feels safe, valued, and respected,” district and high school leadership responded to the concerns it roused from students and sought to enact several steps forward to address racial injustice.

Tuesday, the school board voted to create a new position in the district: a coordinator of equity and diversity. Job responsibilities will be further discussed in a board workshop next Friday, June 26.

After Sheka Price, a CRHS alumnus, led the group through a series of chants, he noted that he and his friends experienced racism in the district and felt like they were without a voice for a long time.

“Then this happened and I heard that people from CR were going to protest and I just couldn’t miss it,” he said. “It’s good to see the community rise up.”

Emily Dejesus — a rising senior who attended with siblings Melanie, a rising freshman, and Aaron, a 2018 graduate — agreed.

“It’s a good movement to be coming out for and a good message to be spreading,” she said.

Aaron added that he hears a lot of instances of racism, even though the community is diverse.

“We need to stand strong about it,” he said.

The protest also drew those from outside of the student body.

Imani Watts, a Delaware State University student, attended the protest. Having worked as a substitute for the district, she said “a lot of the grievances the students hold, I’ve felt.”

“I’ve heard students actually tell teachers about their racial divide at the school and seen them do nothing about it but push it aside and act like it’s not there,” she said. “As a future teacher myself, I think it’s very important that teachers really listen to students and care about what’s going on in their lives, not just the students that win awards and have a lot of money or come from a certain background.”

Kristin King and Madison Tyson, both rising seniors at Polytech High School, wanted to be a part of important change, Ms. Tyson said.

“There’s been strides made nationwide but one of the biggest problems is racism inside of schools and so just showing up anyway you can to try to [make] change,” said Ms. King.

Ms. King pointed to the fact that Polytech hasn’t had an organized protest of its own.

“Both Polytech and CR have had past problems with racism and addressing the racism so I feel like both schools go hand in hand with needing change,” she said.

Both students noted that they wanted to see an evolution of curriculum, incorporating more cultures and celebrating black culture more.

They agreed that this has to be a continued conversation.

“I just feel like the protesting really does work. Even though people don’t think it works, it can do a lot,” Ms. Tyson said. “And when people use their voice, it really does make a big change in the world.”

Though the protest began formally at noon, protesters began arriving 20 minutes early. Staff from inside the building joined the students in their line along the road.

“We’re out here to support our students and — as a team, and as a school, and as a district — we firmly believe that black lives matter and we want to support the changes and initiatives they want to see,” said Sherry Kijowski, principal for the high school.

In a letter released June 12, Dr. Kijowski announced a series of goals for the high school, which included professional development for all staff to focus on cultural awareness, sensitivity training, trauma and equity; supporting a student-led black student union; reviewing curriculum for multicultural readings; supporting registration to vote for all students 18 or older before the next election; and hosting a historically black college/universities college fair next year.

“A big part of this is educating people, educating ourselves, looking for resources and making things better for our students,” she said Wednesday.

With the school year officially ending Friday, she said work will begin on establishing a committee — consisting of community members, parents, students and more — to address the concerns students have made.

Moving forward, she said the school is committing itself to instilling training in its existing staff for equity and sensitivity training.

“One of the things we’re committed to is recruiting more teachers of color to diversify our faculty,” she added. “I think that everybody needs to share their story and we have to become comfortable with uncomfortable conversations so that we can learn from one another.”

She added that it is important that students feel comfortable sharing their experiences with racial injustice and microaggressions with staff, as well as staff “recognizing when those things are happening in the classroom.”

“I think the process has to start, with everybody educating themselves,” she said.

Since the statues of Caesar Rodney and Christopher Columbus were removed by Wilmington city officials last week, conversation has circulated about the district and high school’s names.

At this time, Dr. Kijowski said, there has been no conversation “with any of us,” she said.

“To date, our focus has been on what can we do now, and what can we get started on this summer, to institute some changes already for next school year?” she said.

She added that she is proud of the students for demonstrating and thinks the creation of a coordinator of equity and diversity is a good first step.

“I think this whole process has taught us what we need to do better for our students K-12,” she said.

Seeing the students come together to organize something like this, Mr. Price said, reflects what the school has instilled within them.

“CR has a way of activating students and emboldening their voices as people. They put it inside us for us to be here. We’re not a quiet school district by any means,” he said. “We’re just using the voice that they gave us.”