White Privilege card spurs discussion of racism in local school

Unity Point Elementary School held a school board meeting on Feb. 22 where community members addressed their concerns over “white privilege” cards that were handed out by a student; and harmful threats made against students that occurred.

The chief topic was how the school is handling the situation.

Community member Chastity Mays said from her understanding the child in question planned to hand out the cards months before he came to school with them. Mays said the situation could’ve been handled sooner.


“When it’s gone a little further and there are children who are being threatened […] that’s a very scary situation for the school,” Mays said. “I don’t want, a few months down the road, for that threat to be carried out.”

Mays said some students of color at Unity Point felt threatened, afraid and unheard by faculty and when they reached out to them about the situation.

“When the [public] communication came out […] it made the children not [feel] believed, like it was just a rumor,” Mays said. “I think that this needs to be strongly considered that this young man is disciplined harshly, and I never like to say that about any child, but this is a very serious situation.”

One of the first parents to reach out to the school, Terrisha Adams, spoke at the meeting on the communication gap between the school and the parents during the situation.

“I feel like the incident with the white privilege card […] that’s something that everyone should have known about whether or not their child was involved,” Adams said. “‘Hey, this happened at the school just to let you know’, have conversations with the kids, see how the kids feel about it.”

Adams said she appreciated the school releasing a letter on Friday, Feb. 18, but it felt forced with how fast the problem was progressing.

“We’re supposed to be a team,” Adams said. “We all care about the students, our kids, our families, we need to be communicating better and working better together.”


Lisa Jackson, a parent of a Unity Point student, said she didn’t hear about the cards until reading about it in the news.

“The letter that was sent out did not make me feel at ease, as a parent,” Jackson said. “I worry about the repercussions of when this child comes back to school, if he comes back to school. Will there be anger on his part again, carrying out said threat?”

Even though she understands the need to keep what’s happening with the student’s discipline confidential, Jackson said she feels the parents need reassurance of their child’s safety while at school.

Adams, Mays and community activist Nancy Maxwell had a meeting with the school about the cards on Feb. 10 and said they all were unsatisfied with how the school continued to handle the situation.

“I feel like if the student had been another color, more seriousness would have been taken with it,” Maxwell said. “I tried to keep calm at some of the comments made in that meeting, which let me know, there’s a lot of work to be done at Unity Point as far as racism [and] working with the Black children that go here.”

Maxwell and Mays gave the school suggestions on how to diversify the curriculum including articles to reference, people to speak at the school, and a documentary Mays made. Maxwell said she hopes the school will use them soon, and not sometime in the future.

A few students came to the meeting to express their concerns tearfully about how they don’t feel safe coming to school and how their parents are scared to send them to school.

The students made a point of actively trying to tell faculty about the situation but not being listened to made them feel silenced.

Adams said if action was taken after their meeting with the school, and the topic wasn’t minimized in seriousness, the threats the students made wouldn’t have happened.

“I feel like if that situation was handled at that time a little bit more sternly this situation might just have been avoided,” Adams said. “Sometimes when you just give them a slap on the wrist, it gives them fuel.”

After the meeting, Adams said parents always let their children know to let an adult know something, but being brushed off by faculty and staff makes them feel silenced.

“One week he’s passing out white privilege cards… [next thing] he’s threatening to kill that first demographic of kids then he gets suspended,” Adams said. “Although it does affect kids of color it affects everyone. I just feel like the kids of color are not being as protected.”

An improvement Adams wishes to see from the school is employing more people of color for the students to have someone to connect to, she said. With eight job openings at the school, the community’s trying to fill them all with people of color.

In response to the comments made by students and parents, superintendent Lori James-Gross made it clear that upon finding out about everything about the situation, the school looked to their bullying protocols to handle the situation.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get all students help, including that child. That takes some time to arrange for those social services and things of that nature,” James-Gross said. “As we were working through that, we were trying to simultaneously deal with other rumors that were now swirling in parents’ phone calls, etc.”

James-Gross took responsibility for the lack of communication during the second week of the situation, but said it’s not normal to give parents the information immediately, especially with the questionable timeline from all the responses she received from students.

“I also felt very strongly that in my world as to what I do as a superintendent, I do have an obligation to move through what our process and our policies state,” James-Gross said. “[To] gather that information before I put anything out because you want to know why.”

The superintendent made it clear the color of the student who brought in the card wouldn’t have mattered. The situation would have still been handled the same, James-Gross said.

Adams said she still thinks otherwise.

The school does plan to use the resources recommended by Maxwell and Mays to bring awareness to students, James-Gross said.

James-Gross and principal Mary Beth Goff expressed concerns about how information spreads on social media.

“It is very, very difficult to outrun social media, or to even get ahead of social media,” James-Gross said. “That’s unfortunate because when it moves to social media, there are a lot of other layers that come with that.”

As they investigated the situation they found that some of the information they received from students wasn’t first-hand, but the school still did their best to pay attention to the student’s concerns, James-Gross said.

Goff said the past few weeks have been focused on listening to students and building trust with them; one of those ways includes having morning advisory meetings to help the students express how they feel to other students and staff.

“I think that this has been really difficult and so the morning meeting piece has been really, really important,” Goff said. “Just really wrapping the students with the support that they need to really be able to articulate how they feel about what’s been going on, and also work through it, and move forward.”

Although the school can’t share information about how they’re disciplining the student, they have been working closely with them and their parents about the weight of their decisions, James-Gross said.

“There are a lot of layers to what we are working through with that student to figure out how to not only make sure that our entire environment is safe,” James-Gross said. “That our students feel safe, but that we can also care for him as well.”

As for adding to the curriculum, James-Gross said she plans to get in touch with the speaker Maxwell offered to talk to students and try to work with the school to employ people of color, but can only hire who applies.

Goff said as of now the junior high teachers do a good job of intertwining important social topics in the curriculum.

“We will do better to make sure most importantly that all of our students and our parents are reassured that our environment is a safe environment,” James-Gross said.

People who wish to apply for positions at the school can go to the Unity Point school website.

Staff reporter Jamilah Lewis can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @jamilahlewis. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.