THE BUZZ 2: Seeking Safe Places

By on March 1, 2017

Are policies at Jackson Hole High School stringent enough to dissuade student harassment?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When school administrators canceled “America Day” at Jackson Hole High School in 2015, much of the student and parent population were up in arms.

The themed dress-up day, part of the high school’s Homecoming week, was scrapped due to concerns that some high school students would feel excluded and unsafe. Such concerns were met with protests and heated conversations about what it means to be “American.” Some students decided to go to school in their most patriotic garb anyway.

Michelle Tzompa, a Latino student at JHHS, remembers the day clearly. “That day when they were protesting, they were dressed up, calling us mean names, blaming us,” she said. Some of the students in protest, she said, blamed the Latino Leadership Club. “They thought it was our fault, when in reality we knew nothing about it.”

Tzompa was a sophomore at the time. Now, as a senior, she is more involved in conversations at the high school—primarily through a group called We the People—but she is no less wary of the racism that she sees in the school’s halls. In fact, she says on the heels of the presidential election, things have gotten worse. “[Students] started [demonizing] the Latino race,” she said. “We were pretty scared. I think that’s why the school is so segregated.”

Protecting against harassment

Teton County School District has strict policies on harassment and discrimination, said TCSD No. 1 superintendent Dr. Gillian Chapman.

But while on paper racism is intolerable at Teton County schools, according to some students, it is going unnoticed and unreported.

Harassment and discrimination policies in Teton County School District mandate that “Any student of this School District who believes s/he has been discriminated against, denied a benefit, or excluded from participation in any School District program or activity on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability may file a written complaint with the School District Civil Rights Compliance Officer.” They also prohibit “harassment, intimidation, bullying, or retaliation” against another student.

Repercussions are serious, but it’s easy for instances of discrimination to fly under the radar. “Our staff deal with discrimination and harassment swiftly,” Chapman said, “however, unless observed directly, the staff must be made aware of the issue. It has been my experience that students are not always willing to report situations to staff. If the staff is unaware of the situation, they cannot address it.”

But the process of reporting harassment is an arduous one. Students must file a written complaint, and if the complaint is deemed serious, school staff will conduct an investigation of the incident that includes interviews with both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. Staff will write a written report, then decide on an appropriate disciplinary action, which could include suspension or expulsion.

Tzompa said she understands the reporting process, and has in fact gone through it herself. She reported bullying when it happened to her in middle school, but she has never known anyone to publicly come forward and report instances of racism. She feels comfortable making reports, but said that in her experience they didn’t seem to make a difference. “I felt like the school didn’t do much and they just ignored my situation,” she said.

The state of Wyoming mandates that schools inform students of such policies at the beginning of each school year. Jackson Hole High School’s student handbook, however, delegates one paragraph in 23 pages to student harassment. It makes no mention of discrimination. More detailed policies can be found on the school district website, under school board policies.

Other districts in Wyoming are less vague. Natrona County School District, which houses Casper schools, dedicates pages of their student/parent handbook to definitions of discrimination and harassment, including a definition of “hate activity” which is “any act or attempted act that may cause physical injury, emotional suffering … harassment, racial or ethnic slurs, bigoted epithet … motivated in whole or in part by hostility to the victim’s real or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”

In Teton County, however, there are also apparent discrepancies about what racism and discrimination actually look like. High school social studies teacher Jim Rooks says that while he hears “racially charged statements” almost every day, “racism is a big word.”

“It implies that there’s a discriminatory act based on race itself,” he said, and that’s not always easy to identify.

Tzompa suggests, however, that experiences of racism are more than just hate speech and bullying. They  isalso segregation. In one of her government classes, students were asked to split into groups. The class was evenly split between white students and Latino students. It was only after Rooks’ encouragement that students tried to integrate.

Young integration

Senior Josephine Gwilliam’s senior capstone project explored the more nuanced ways that race mitigates student relationships both in and out of the high school. Her research found that while most students admit to having diverse friend groups, more than half of those students had not invited peers of a different ethnicity to their homes. Only 25 percent of people she interviewed had invited someone of a different ethnicity to their house more than three times over the course of three months. That struck Gwilliam. “Even though a large majority of us have been together the last 10 years,” she said, “half of us still do not intermix.”

While staff cannot always identify and discipline moments of racism in school halls, Chapman says the district works hard to ensure that schools are safe spaces for all students. “Our schools provide a variety of ways in which expectations are made clear on how to treat one another,” she said.

One such effort was this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration at the high school. During the holiday, students led discussions on “really powerful, poignant issues” on everything from race relations at the high school, to feminism and disability awareness, Rooks said.

Such efforts are educational and proactive rather than reactive and disciplinary. And Tzompa thinks there might be something to them. She said she has noticed a shift in the way people treat each other in light of recent assemblies, especially the Martin Luther King day celebration.

Gwilliam was one of the assembly speakers. Before presenting her capstone project, she asked all Latino students in the audience to stand. The congregation of people in the same area served as a perfect entry point to the rest of her discussion.

“It’s tricky to discuss segregational issues when it’s not as blatantly obvious as it was in the 1950s, for example,” Gwilliam said. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist. The truth is segregation is still around, sometimes by design. Sometimes by choice.” Other schools of similar demographic make-ups, she noted, are “more integrated.”

“We have to keep in mind that Jackson is a much younger community … in terms of integration,” she said, “and the progress and effort our community has made in the past 20 years is remarkable.

“As inspiring as our community is,” she continued, “there is still a ways to go.”

Chapman emphasized that the school district partners with community groups “to ensure students and families have support.” Groups include One22, Teton Youth and Family Services, Community Safety Network and Teton Literacy Center, “among many others,” Chapman said.

“Many people are fearful of things outside the control of the school,” Chapman said. “Our schools work diligently in creating an inclusive and supportive culture.”

Chapman says she encourages students to come forward and report instances of harassment and discrimination so that schools can more actively combat them. PJH

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