A former student speaks out about racism in Juneau schools; administration says it’ll do better

Lacey Davis joined about 250 people gathered for a public “I Can’t Breathe” rally protesting the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was killed after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck while taking him into custody in Minnesota. People held signs decrying violence against black people and calling out institutional racism, many supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. Similar protests happened throughout the state with hundreds turning out in Fairbanks and Anchorage, they’ve also erupted in dozens of cities all over the country. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

After watching protests unfold for Black lives in Alaska and across the country, Lacey Davis posted a video on Facebook about her experiences of growing up Black in Juneau.

“I live in a town that is very small. It’s rather secluded and that it’s generally a really friendly place. The people here for the most part are very open minded and accepting,” Davis said in the video.

Davis moved to Juneau when she was 13 and graduated from Thunder Mountain High School in 2016. She says that one day in high school, a boy asked her if she wanted to be her friend so he could call her the “n-word.”

“I didn’t really understand the implications of it. I thought that he was just trying to be dumb and funny,” she said. “My dad was the one that had to tell me like, no, this was wrong and when somebody says that to you, they don’t actually want to be your friend.”

And that wasn’t the only time Davis experienced racism in the classroom.

A few weeks after starting high school at Thunder Mountain, one of her teachers spoke about former First Lady Michelle Obama’s work on encouraging Black women to understand that they’re beautiful and powerful.

“A boy sitting behind me in history class said, ‘Yeah, except they’re not though.’ He said it quiet enough so that the teacher at the front wasn’t able to hear but I heard it and I turned around and I looked at him, and he just looked directly at me and smiled,” Davis said.

Davis didn’t report that incident to the school. She says she felt like her experiences weren’t serious enough and also that her issues with anxiety played a much larger factor as to why she didn’t report it.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss saw Davis’ video. She says she wishes Davis would have reported what happened to her. And even though that was a missed opportunity for the school, Weiss says that she hopes that students would report inappropriate comments and behaviors.

“We want to support students,” said Weiss. “We would hope that she would, or a student in her situation would share her experience and so we have multiple ways we can respond. Discipline is one of them.”

According to school policy, derogatory language or any other negative racial comment is considered verbal harassment and bullying. It can also fall under threats to students, staff and members of the school community.

These are called Category I infractions which could mean a meeting with a parent, suspension and even expulsion.

But Weiss says that in recent years, the district has put in place new protocols for so-called restorative practices when it comes to issues related to race, things like conflict resolution, reducing harmful behavior and holding individuals accountable. They’re meant to repair harm, build healthy relationships and ultimately address the needs of the school community.

“Where there really is an opportunity for students to have a more productive, conducive conversation, if it’s appropriate there or with a student individually if the two students shouldn’t or couldn’t be together,” said Weiss.

While Juneau schools don’t have an office or department to deal specifically with racial equity, Weiss published a statement on the district’s website committing the district to anti-racism.

In it, Weiss writes that the district acknowledges that it “is not exempt from racial injustices and that each child deserves better.”

The statement also mentions a new strategic plan that highlights narrowing the achievement gap and building a more respectful district.

The district also has an equity workbook for families and a team of cultural specialists to advocate for Alaska Native students. Still, Weiss says, that’s not enough to address race in the classroom for other students of color.

“We are not finding the right ways yet to support them to achieve at the same level as other students,” said Weiss. “We’re working on that.”

As for Davis, who is now a working professional, she hasn’t heard from the district since she published her video or the boys who said those things to her and about Black women. She doesn’t expect them to apologize.

“I just want people to be able to have that closure with themselves if that makes sense,” said Davis. “Like to be able to acknowledge what they did within themselves and then move forward from there.”

With the escalating nationwide conversation on race, Weiss says, the district is looking at what next steps make sense to prioritize learning environments that are supportive of every student.