How Holyoke High Ethnic Studies students organized against racism and won (Spring 2019)


Earlier this month, students at Holyoke High School requested a meeting with Holyoke High School’s Principal Dr. Mahoney and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse to discuss racism and discrimination at HHS. Massachusetts Jobs with Justice worked with students over the course of the spring and facilitated a “How To Organize” series of workshops with 11th grade students enrolled in Ethnic Studies classes. The students quickly identified racism as an issue they were eager to organize around.  While discrimination and racism were not new at their school, students had been growing increasingly frustrated with the inequitable enforcement of the dress code policy. Specifically, students were in opposition to the section in the dress code dealing specifically with headwear.  The policy states,

“Hats, bandanas and sweatbands in school are inherently disruptive and are not allowed, with an exception for religious headwear. Students should remove these items when entering the school building and place them in their lockers or book bags for the remainder of the day.”

Students of color at HHS noticed immediately that while the rule did not explicitly ban durags, students were being disciplined for wearing them regardless. It was also very apparent based on student feedback that this rule was being unevenly applied to students of color. One student remarked that he was asked to remove his durag in the cafeteria line and he said he would do so if the white student beside him was also made to remove his baseball cap. The white student was allowed to walk away with his hat still atop his head while the student of color was disciplined.  

In response to the discriminatory enforcement of the dress code, a group of students in the school’s Ethnic Studies class created a survey on racism at Holyoke High School and distributed it to students across the school. By the next day, they had received 137 responses. While the survey did not ask any questions specific to the durag rule, several students mentioned it explicitly in their responses. When asked “What are some racist or discriminatory experiences you've had or witnessed in school?” students wrote:

“Taking a student out of lunch because they wouldn’t take their Durag off.”

“My friend got told to take her Durag off and she didn’t so she got in-house [suspension].”

“Students or latinos getting stopped and followed to take hats, hoodies, durags off.”

“I’ve experienced seeing white kids with hats but hispanics or blacks aren’t able to wear durags.”

Responses to the survey’s questions about the school’s culture around issues of racism and discrimination revealed that “the durag rule” only represents the tip of the iceberg. 73% of students agreed that school policies target their racial or ethnic group, and 85% reported that they see a racial pattern in the ways that students are disciplined at Holyoke High. Students’ responses also pointed to racism in the administration, and in the treatment of faculty of color. 80% of students reported that Holyoke High School is not doing it’s best to hire and retain teachers of color, despite the fact that 75% of the survey respondents said they would feel more comfortable with more PoC faculty. Not only this, but 58% of the students also suggested that current teachers undergo cultural sensitivity training.

Perhaps the most impactful data point collected by the survey is that 93% of respondents said that Holyoke High School needs to implement more policies addressing racism and discrimination in the community.

While the survey revealed that the large majority of students experience a culture of both casual and explicit racism at HHS, the results also highlighted the importance of programs that seek to change that culture. In response to a question about how students react to racism at school, a handful of responses pointed to the Ethnic Studies class offered as a history elective. One student wrote,

“we usually talk about [racism] with teachers that we actually trust, like ethnic studies teachers.”

Another reflected,

“only the people that take ethnic studies really have a reaction since we see things that regular people don’t. We don’t agree with a lot.”

Emphasizing the importance of Ethnic Studies in students’ abilities to recognize and act against instances of racism and discrimination, 75% of respondents reported that students who have not taken Ethnic Studies are less educated on racism than those who have, and 74% said that Ethnic Studies should become a required course at school.

Upon receiving these significant survey results, the students who created the survey called a meeting with the HHS principal, superintendent, and the Mayor of the city of Holyoke to present their findings and demand the repeal of the durag rule. On June 3rd, the High School’s Executive Principal and Mayor Alex Morse joined two classes of Ethnic Studies students to discuss the survey results and possible solutions. Students led the discussion, delivering a presentation on the survey results and their personal experiences of racism in dress code enforcement, the treatment of teachers of color, and within the student community. Following the presentation, student leaders facilitated a conversation between the students and administrators about changes the students wanted to see. The meeting deeply moved those who attended.

Alicia Fleming, Western MA Organizer of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, expressed admiration for the students’ efforts after attending the meeting at Holyoke High School. She remarked,

“It was inspiring to watch as students facilitated and led a conversation with Mayor Morse and Dr. Mahoney about their experiences with racism and discrimination in their school. Students were able to put their ethnic studies education to work and advocate for themselves while speaking truth to power. It was both remarkable and incredibly courageous.”

Three days later the principal of HHS released a statement overturning the durag rule for the remainder of the school year. It is clear that this win is a direct result of student organizing.

When we fight, we win!

NewsSarah Block