Hardened Hearts on the Front Lines: The impacts of anti-Black racism in Sonoma County Schools

As we come to the close of the 2022 – 2023 Academic School year, I am feeling compelled to share my observations and reflections. One aspect of our branch services is to provide advocacy to students and families who are seeking support to best understand their rights in education. 

Following the murders of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we watched many in Sonoma County join to call to support and amplify that Black Lives Matter. We observed many educators and districts begin to reflect on areas for improvement when it comes to their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; we also made note of those who still have not. 

Here we are, three years away from what would be deemed the big “racial awakening.” We are not only continuing to see an increase in racial harassment and discrimination on campuses across Sonoma County,  but we are seeing an uptick in participation from faculty, staff and administration. 

Black students have reported the following from their peers:

  • Having their hair: pet/groomed, pulled, and mocked
  • Verbal attacks: “coon” , “monkey”, “n-word”,  “go back to Africa”, “you belong on a plantation”, “you should just stick to picking cotton”
  • Assaults: shoving, pushing, slapping, groping (sexual in nature), items stolen from backpacks/lockers, “spills” on assignments
  • Mocked heavily throughout Black History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. Day activities, and (mismanaged) lessons around historical events

Black students have reported the following from their teachers or administrators:

  • Oblivious to racial language use in classrooms
  • Silence when non-Black students use racial language (especially the “n-word”) in general or toward Black students
  • Belittling and insulting the intelligence of Black students when a response to a question is deemed insufficient
  • Overhearing or being made aware of teachers making fun of them in adult or student settings
  • Not being taken seriously as an “academic;” asked chronically about athletic interests
  • Constantly having their behavior monitored; feeling policed on campus
  • Adults of other ethnic/religious backgrounds creating discomfort by trying to equate their lived experience to that of the harm Black students experience; often perceived as invalidation
  • Being blocked or discouraged from creating Black Student Union (BSU) affinity spaces
  • A lack of leadership opportunities for Black students beyond BSU clubs
  • Gatekeeping by counselors and teachers in regards to accessing AP and Honors classes

Black students have reported these incidents to adults on campus and are met with excuses or are chastised about what they did to cause their peers or their teachers to act in such a way. Thankfully, many students report these incidents to their parents who attempt to communicate directly with the school and they are quickly gaslighted and are unable to find resolve with campus administrators. 

As the incidents continue, families have reached out to the NAACP for support and advocacy. It is then we discover the mishandling of the incidents and Title VI violations, students have the federally-protected right to an education free from discrimination and harassment. We often triangulate the support with Save Your Six to ensure families are fully aware of their rights and the paths forward to rectify the violations.

The 2021 Portrait of Sonoma highlighted the educational disparities most negatively impacting Black and Indigenous students and yet, when families find the courage to advocate for their children they are met with adversity. They are confronted with the harsh reality of the systemic oppression our education system relies on that negatively impacts Black students. More often than not, we find that the school’s response to the family seeking the support from our organization results in retaliation (seen in grades/minimizing opportunities for unstructured peer time), intimidation tactics (threats with legal counsel/removal from all extracurriculars), attempts to isolate students and parents to force communication without an advocate, disproportionate disciplinary actions impacting a students record, and an overall dismissal of their issues altogether. 

These instances also illuminate that teachers and administrators in Sonoma County – who are overwhelmingly white – do not possess the skill sets to truly address the issues of anti-Blackness and some frankly, do not care to.  There is a lot at stake for Black students and families with Black youth in our community. According to the data, Black students are under enrolled in Sonoma County Schools just under 70%. They often make up 25% of the chronic absenteeism within their districts with an average representation of 1-2% of the student population. This communicates a larger systemic issue yet to be explored. And why has it not? Additional data suggests an over representation in the carceral system; why has this not been explored with an expedited path towards restorative reentry programs? 

So, as we’ve asked in the past, do Black Lives truly matter in Sonoma County? Or does it only apply when the call to action keeps the conversation at surface level? 

Black residents make up 2% of the overall population in Sonoma County and experience some of the most egregious discrimination practices in this century. If you read that aloud and found yourself comparing other groups’ struggles to the problems of  Black people in Sonoma County, that is an act of anti-Blackness. Black residents in Sonoma County have the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) score compared to the state and national average and live 10 years less than any other ethnic group in the county. This does not happen overnight, this is generations of systemic harm designating these outcomes. 

We must intentionally pause to explore the root causes, analyze the data, and mandate a course of action across all 41 districts. As a continued result to address incidents of racial harassment and discrimination in our schools, the Santa Rosa – Sonoma NAACP joins the CA/HI State NAACP Branch in calling for support for AB 1165(McCarty) to address Pupil Discipline after an instance of Racial Harassment and  AB1327(Weber) to address the additional issues that occur for athletes. 

These issues are not new and we are tired of raising the alarm over and over. We need cooperative and collaborative actions to write policy and procedures to support and uplift our Black students. Black Futures in Sonoma County matter. 

– President Lange