Imagine this situation. Two black children, a brother and a sister, enrol at a school which is predominatly white. they are subject to racial slurs and other harrassment. They are threatened and assaulted. In one instance, after the girl is threatened, her white nemesis is forced to apologize -- only to return to school three days later with a weapon, threatening to kill the girl.
What do you think would happen?
We know the answer. There would be marches, protests, outaged community members appearing at emergency meetings to demand that action be taken. State and federal officials would intervene. There would certainly be changes inthe school and district administration, designed to change the "festering culture of racism" that had been permitted to arise in the school.
Well, that isn't what happened at one school in Peoria, Illinois. But then again, the victims were white, and the perpetrators were. . . well, the columnist is too PC to actually tell us what race the perpetrators are. Doing so might be construed as racist, I suppose.
Up to the point a fourth-grader brought a box cutter to school and threatened to kill their daughter, Joe and Jessica Sweeney wanted to give Glen Oak Primary School a chance.
"'This is our neighborhood. This is where we live. Let's give the public schools a shot,'" is the way Joe describes their reasoning. "We've lived here six years. Let's give it a shot."
* * *
From the beginning, it was uncomfortable. Both children were taunted with racial slurs, particularly Alexis. The Sweeneys tried to make this a life lesson, coaching their kids to respond appropriately. They advised the children to report any threats or poor treatment to teachers, assuming the adults were addressing the problems. And they prayed their kids were simply learning the uncomfortable truth that life can be tough. But the incidents didn't stop, despite a lot of back-and-forth with the school. The kids kept their grades up, but they got pretty quiet.
In mid-March, matters came to a head during an after-school program. Alexis was alone in a bathroom when she was threatened by three other girls. Jessica went to the principal, who brought the ringleader in and made her apologize. Days later, the same girl was back - with a box cutter - threatening to kill Alexis. On the ride home after that incident, Jacob displayed a large bruise on his arm from being shoved to the ground and called a "stupid white boy."
Jessica pulled both kids out of the school immediately.
"I'm done," she says. "I'm done putting her life at risk because you won't do anything."
"This is beyond standard fourth-grade stuff," agrees Joe. "This is becoming racial now. They're not going back."
Frankly, I think these parents should have pulled the kids much earlier. The failure of the school to adequately address the situation should have been a signal that the situation would only get worse. After all, consider how the school and the district responded.
He feels this is a two-part problem. First and most importantly, they feel the school has failed to ensure the children's safety. But, second, they don't think Peoria School District 150 offered much in the way of alternatives or support. The Sweeneys were given the option to switch to Kingman Primary School. They refused. Alexis and Jacob would still be a small part of the handful of white children there.
"It's racial harassment. It's just the other way," says Joe. "There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy of any type of harassment."
One suggestion was that the family move. Again, they refused. Four houses along their street near Midtown Plaza belong to members of Jessica's family. The kids have plenty of friends - and cousins - in the neighborhood. Their grandmother runs a small business up the block.
"This is our home," Joe says. "It may not be in the best area, but this is our home."
THEY TOLD THE FAMILY TO SELL THEIR HOME AND MOVE! Could you imagine the outrage if they had been a black family in a mostly white school and had been told that the solution was for them to move somewhere where there were more of their own kind? That district would be under court supervision until two or three years after the Second Coming. Individuals would have lost their teaching and administrative credentials. But since the kids are only white, it really is not a big deal, I suppose.
And lest you think this is a family of whiners, consider the situation of the older brother who is a few years ahead of the threatened students.
Unlike other families who have pulled children from Peoria schools in favor of Catholic education or more upscale neighboring districts, the Sweeneys are in a unique position to publicly explain why. They are not fleeing the inner city. This is not a knee-jerk reaction against District 150. And it's tough to brand them as closet racists.
They actually have three children. Their oldest son, Caleb, is bi-racial. He has attended District 150 schools and thrived.
"My son is in Von Steuben," Jessica says. "He's mixed. He doesn't have one problem."
The mixed-race child is fine. He isn't subject to the harrassment faced by his younger siblings. So the problem clearly comes down to one of race, and the failure of a school and district to address racist actions by minority children.
Most galling, in my opinion, is the reaction of Assistant Superintendent Cindy Fischer. She claims that all procedures have ben followed correctly.
The bottom of the official line is that the district has policies that were followed in each of these instances. Every one was addressed, in large part through a nationally-recognized program that teaches and reinforces appropriate behavior. District-wide, 150 has four committees exploring various aspects of discipline problems. And for this family, offering Kingman is a respectable option: It is late in the year, so the district is reluctant to make any transfers. But Kingman has fewer discipline problems and several openings. Hines Primary School, which is the Sweeneys' choice because Caleb did well there, has none.
"It certainly is our regret that we were not able to bring satisfaction to this parent," Fischer says. "As consumers, when we're not satisfied with one product, we go to another. I think that is what this parent has done."
In other words, the family should be thankful that the district even offered the kids refuge in another school -- they could have been required to stay in their old school, under regular threat of violence with no effective response from the administration. And that last line about consumers making choices is positively obscene, for the parents are taxpaying citizens who will still have a portion of their assets extorted from them in the form of taxes to support a school system which so ineffectively dealt with the racial abuse of their children. Yeah, they made a choice to move the kids to a school where they would be safe -- but they are still paying for the school they wish to have their children attend but cannot due to safety concerns.
It is situations like these that make the best case for vouchers -- if not the outright shuttering of the public school system. After all, if the funding of the district actually depended on dealing effectively with racial harrassment of all children -- and not just those of vocal minority communities -- maybe there would be an adequate response.