‘Racism at Westlake’: Students share painful experiences in common

Investigations
Investigative Summary:

An anonymous Instagram account started posting stories of racism experienced by students at Westlake High School. KXAN spoke with a number of students about their personal experience and what they think needs to change in the school’s culture, and dug into concrete solutions the district is currently pursuing.

Read Part Two: ‘Racism at Westlake’: Athletes report offensive behaviors within powerhouse program

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Remi Ogunsanya first remembers racial slurs being directed at her in middle school. She said her peers almost always said them while laughing. They didn’t realize the impact of their words.

“I’ve been called the n-word every other day, or I have heard the n-word every other day, from 8th grade onwards,” Ogunsanya said.

18-year-old Zane Minors remembers a specific moment in kindergarten on the school bus. He said, for years, he thought white kids using the slur was normal and acceptable behavior.

“This older kid tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and, you know, he just called me the n-word. So casually,” Minors said. “Seeing that at such a young age and thinking that was normal, it hurt me. It really did.”

Annabelle Mahadevan, who is of Filipino and Indian descent, said she wishes she could have done more to stop her peers from stereotyping and ridiculing her Asian classmates.

“It was easier for me to start making those same jokes against myself than to say something about it to my own friends, peers or teachers,” Mahadevan said. “When you make them your own jokes, can people really hurt you?”

Mahadevan now concedes: Yes, it can, and does, still hurt.

“It really had an impact on my personal identity. I started feeling bad about myself, who I was and my culture,” Mahadevan said.

Ogunsanya, Minors and Mahadevan are three of eight current and former students KXAN interviewed about their first-hand experiences of racism at Westlake High School. Each one said they have either lived through, or witnessed first-hand, overt acts of racism from their classmates.

In 2020, with all eyes on race relations across the globe, these young men and women are sharing their own personal stories with KXAN. But, it all began with a grassroots social media movement among the student body.

Racism at Westlake: An Instagram account

An Instagram account, “@racismatwestlake,” first started drawing attention in June.

“This is a platform for all persons within Eanes ISD…to share about experiences with racism in the district,” one post reads. “Especially because of our problematic, racist history, we must reckon with our past and recognize our present so that we can positively change our future.”

The account owner, who has asked to remain anonymous for this story, tells KXAN that submissions began flooding in after the first post on June 22. The owner identifies themselves as a Westlake High School alumni and person of color.

Story continues below…

Source: Texas Education Agency 2018-19 School Report Card

“It’s been a powerful thing watching students admit that there was wrongdoing and not feeling ashamed,” the owner told KXAN.

The demographics for WHS help tell the greater story: According to the Texas Education Agency, the vast majority of students are Caucasian. Of the 2,767 students who attended Westlake High School in 2018/2019, 69.1% of the student body was white, 13.4% was Asian, 12.5% was Hispanic and 0.7% was African American.

In comparison, the TEA reports white high schoolers across the entire state of Texas made up 27.4% of the population, while 52.6% of students enrolled in high schools across Texas were Hispanic and 12.6% were African American.

Students at WHS say this racial disparity is the root of the tensions among classmates.

“Westlake’s motto is ‘we are rich, we are white, we are Westlake.'”

Lily Adams, Westlake High School Class of 2015

“How can you tell the handful of Black or Hispanic students to have any kind of community when we are all floating in a big sea?” said Mahadevan, who graduated in May.

The Instagram account owner says they are unable to verify the validity of each claim individually. The owner says they look for multiple people to submit the same allegation before posting it to the account.

Most of the posts are kept anonymous, although the majority share the graduating year of the person who submitted the claim. The account says it prioritizes “Black voices and the voices of non-Black people of color.”

“Not a week went by that I did not hear the n-word directed at me or one of my black peers and people stood idly by as this happened for years,” reads one post from a Westlake High School Class of 2015 graduate.

“I reported a guy for doing the Nazi salute during a pledge of honesty in my senior English class. I even submitted a picture as proof, but the administration took no action, and instead took his explanation that it was ‘a joke’ as an excuse for the blatant anti-Semitism and ignorance he was unafraid to show, even in front of an entire class and teacher,” reads a different post, submitted by a Westlake High School Class of 2019 graduate.

There are now more than 75 individuals posts on the account, each one detailing a different personal account or testimony from current and former Eanes ISD students.

“People are told, ‘Oh, why can’t you just take a joke?’ Or ‘Why can’t you just go with it? They didn’t mean any harm.’ So they just don’t really understand unless you are going through the experience.”

Emma Nebeker, Westlake High School Class of 2020

Westlake administrators search for solutions

Superintendent Dr. Tom Leonard said he is aware of both the Instagram account and the ongoing discussions on the prevalence of racism within the student body at Westlake High School.

Leonard said he is taking active steps to address it, like an online reporting system which he encourages students to use, implementing a diversity coordinator position at the school and supporting the Board of Trustees decision to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

“I’m not saying there aren’t racist things that can happen in our school district and every school district. But I do not believe there is a culture of racism.”

Dr. Tom Leonard, Superintendent, Eanes Independent School District

Following the passage of David’s Law during Texas’ 85th Legislative Session, school districts across the Lone Star State were required to develop an anonymous system to report bullying and threats. In the fall of 2017, Leonard implemented “Quick Report,” an online tool available on the Eanes ISD website and accessible on each Eanes ISD school’s web page.

“We encourage you to report issues to a school official, but you have the opportunity to make an anonymous report here,” the Quick Report tool reads.

For the years preceding Quick Report, the district said there was no formalized system in place for reporting student complaints. Students were expected to either speak in-person to a teacher or staff member, send an e-mail or leave a voicemail for administrators.

Nowadays, those who use the online tool to submit a complaint are required to choose from six topics: bullying, dating violence, harassment, other, suicide and threat. Racism is not among the list of topics to choose from.

An Eanes ISD spokesperson said each report entered immediately flags the appropriate personnel from the relevant campus. Administrators follow-up if there is enough credible information to work with, Leonard says.

Between 2017 and 2019, 269 reports have been submitted to the Westlake High School administrative team. However, the district says only 9 of them can be categorized as racism-related.

“I often didn’t tell teachers because they would hear and they wouldn’t do anything. So I was like, ‘Why would I go tell a teacher if they already heard the joke and they are not saying anything about it?'”

Remi Ogunsanya, Westlake High School Class of 2016

Former and current Westlake High School students KXAN spoke to said they rarely used Quick Report. Some said they didn’t know about it or it was hard to find on the website. Many students also said they were afraid to be chastised by their peers for “tattling.”

“People are scared to speak out because of the hate they will receive for it,” said GiGi Connor, who graduated from Westlake High in May 2020.

“The culture at Westlake is ‘snitches get stitches.'”

GiGi Connor, Westlake High School Class of 2020

However, the majority of students KXAN spoke to said they never reported any of the offensive behaviors of their classmates because they didn’t think any discipline would ultimately be handed down.

“We see those things and we are like why? What’s the point? Nothing is going to be done. Nothing is going to change. So what’s the point of even doing it?” Mahadevan said.

Leonard tells KXAN he wants more students to come forward if they feel uncomfortable or if any insensitive remarks are made toward them. He says he encourages students to include their contact information so staff can follow-up. Incomplete reports or vague details are a common roadblock administrators face in the follow-up investigations, a district spokesperson shared.

“Since many of the reports are anonymous, sometimes it is hard to follow up on anything unless specific information is included,” the district wrote to KXAN in an e-mail.

“We can protect the privacy of people to report anything they want to report, but they need to tell us if something happens.”

Dr. Tom Leonard, Superintendent, Eanes Independent School District

District officials admitted that the “Quick Report” tool, while satisfying the legislative obligations required by David’s Law, still has flaws.

It is not possible, within the same system, to mark that an allegation has been substantiated and that appropriate discipline has been handed out, the district says. And while there are six options to choose from, there is no category for students to specifically mark a claim as racism-related.

An Eanes ISD spokesperson said that Quick Report was an existing system the district chose and “not a robust program.” She said the district has, in the past, looked at implementing more complete tools, but that effort was halted. The district was not able to say when that effort would be restarted.

Connecting with students

In 2017, Leonard asked head basketball coach Robert Lucero to assume a newly-created “diversity coordinator” position at Westlake High.

Lucero is Hispanic, which he says allows him to connect with students and athletes of color if they are seeking counseling or want to share their experiences on campus.

“Students can feel comfortable reporting when something comes up, knowing that there is someone like me on campus that they can talk to directly.”

Robert Lucero, Westlake High School Diversity Coordinator and Head Basketball Coach

He also conducts training sessions for other Westlake teachers and staff on campus. Lucero said he gathers testimonies from students of color, which he later presents to the staff each year. He said these under-reported testimonies help Westlake staff empathize with the struggles of minority students.

Lucero said its about teaching the staff to understand the bigger picture of their daily lives.

“It’s not that teachers don’t want to make students comfortable. But sometimes we are not even educated enough as to why they are feeling uncomfortable,” Lucero said. “Until I started to read and educate myself, I’m not sure I really understood all the different things students can go through.”

Some Westlake students told KXAN that they have witnessed inappropriate and divisive behaviors occur in front of teachers, but it rarely leads to actual discipline.

“A lot of things get reported. And they’re very serious things, in fact. Nothing seems to get done and that’s the problem.”

Zane Minors, Westlake High School Class of 2021

Those students say most staff will minimize the harm by downplaying the incident or the offenders get a feeble, verbal warning.

Leonard said if he finds out a teacher or staff member knew about a student-to-student incident but did not take the appropriate steps to report it, then the district HR department will investigate.

“I think it starts with the teachers. Their entire job is not just to educate us on the subjects that we are learning, but we are also learning to be citizens. To be accepting, to be tolerant.”

Anabelle Mahadevan, Westlake High School Class of 2020

Bringing in an outside consultant

In late July, the Eanes ISD board of trustees voted to hire an outside consultant for the 2020/2021 school year who will specifically work with staff to address issues of racism within the district.

Dr. Mark Gooden, whose background is in educational leadership and developing antiracist initiatives within school systems, will serve as Eanes ISD’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Consultant.

The trustees have asked Dr. Gooden to create staff professional development plans to address issues related to social justice and racism. Leonard told KXAN that Gooden will begin working with administrative staff first and then the entire district staff later in the year. Lucero said his training with Gooden has already begun.

“We want to do better. We must do better. We are ready and willing to look inside ourselves and learn. Our students are amazing and want to change the world; we need to be ready to guide them,” Leonard said in response to the hire.

Leonard also said Gooden will be looking at the curriculum closely to find areas where more inclusivity needs to be added.

Reporting discipline to the TEA

Schools in Texas must report student suspensions and expulsions for any reason to the Texas Education Agency each year.

A spokesperson for the TEA said that all discipline related to accusations of racism are considered a “code of conduct violation” in the annual discipline summary, which schools must provide to the state each year.

From 2017 to 2019, there were more than 300 code of conduct violations from students at Westlake High School. However, similar to the local level, there is no specific category at the state level for specifically tracking violations related to racism.

So while it’s known how many students were disciplined over the course of those years, there’s no way to determine how many punishments came from racist behaviors.

The TEA says that it can, and often will, launch its own investigations if reports of racism and discrimination are substantiated and deemed credible. However, the discipline of students is handled at the district level.

Anytime there is an allegation of racism or any sort of Title IX allegation, that is sent to the Office of Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Education, the TEA reports.

KXAN has filed an open records request with the U.S. Department of Education, asking for a complete summary of Title IX violations which have occurred at Westlake High School over the past 10 years; this story will be updated when we receive that response.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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