At least 1,000 teachers, office staff and others throughout Seattle Public Schools will wear “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts to school next Wednesday, in a district-wide show of support of students of color.
“I don’t think this has ever been done across the country where an entire district of educators has spoken up with this loud voice and talked about the violence being inflicted upon the black community, and what our black students deserve in the school,” said Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian, who has spoken nationwide on education equity issues. “I hope it sets a precedent and spreads across the country.”
Wednesday’s demonstration of support won’t be limited to just T-shirts. Teachers plan to have age-appropriate lessons on racial and social justice nationwide and in Seattle, and the day will end with an evening rally at Washington Hall.
Organizers say that the focus on equity aims to combat the institutional racism that students of color face.
“Understanding multiple oppressions that our kids face is not a standard. Undoing institutional racism is not one of the Common Core standards. It’s not one of the things that are on the multiple choice exam, yet it’s one of the most important things that our kids face,” Hagopian said.
The school district informed parents of the Oct. 19 event, which is taking place during the district’s #CloseTheGaps week that focuses on closing the opportunity gaps faced by students of color.
Several schools have had their own events supporting students of color led by members of the black community, including several at South Shore Elementary and “Seattle High Five” at Leschi Elementary.
However, a similar event at John Muir Elementary called Black Men Uniting to Change The Narrative was disrupted after that school received threats. News reports focused on John Muir’s teachers wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. The John Muir event continued, but with far fewer people than had been planned.
Sarah Arvey, a teacher at Hamilton International Middle School and one of the organizers of Wednesday’s districtwide event, said it was her own students that challenged her, after she shared news about the threats at John Muir.
“They asked me when are teachers going to stand up. That is to me what is at the center of all this — that our school is in support, our teachers are in support, our families are in support. And this should be the norm,” Arvey said. “This should not be one day, this should not just be a T-shirt.”
Sebrena Burr, the president of the Seattle County PTSA said the board unanimously supported the teachers’ action planned for Wednesday.
Burr recounted a story that a teacher in another district told her, but which emphasized the need to involve teachers in race relation discussions.
“ ‘I’m a kindergarten teacher, but when one of my students calls another student the ”n” word, I have no tool in my toolkit to deal with that,’ “ Burr recalled. “We have situations that go on in our classrooms every day. Most of our teachers are white women who do not have the background in race and equity. It’s not that they don’t want it. It’s that we’re not giving it to them.”
Hagopian said organizers expect that this will be a discussion in all parts of the school district, despite differences in demographics at the individual schools.
“There are 1,000 shirts, that’s one out of four teachers in the district, so I think we’ll get good representation at all the schools,” Hagopian said.