Students, alums see racist culture at Chicago private school

CHICAGO (AP) — As an eighth-grader in 2017, South Chicago resident Randy Pierre boasted the grades and test scores to get into some of Chicago’s top high schools. His first choice was Whitney Young High School, a public school on the Near West Side where two in three students are people of color.

But Randy chose the Latin School of Chicago, an independent school on the Gold Coast serving predominantly white and affluent students. Latin tendered him a four-year scholarship worth more than $120,000 in tuition. His parents preferred Latin, and his sister, a 2014 Latin grad, praised its academic rigor.

She warned her brother, too: “She told me I would have some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in my life there,” Randy said. “I didn’t believe her. I thought that maybe she just had a bad experience, that I would be different.”

But Randy saw for himself in the summer of 2017, five days into the school year. Randy said he was sitting on a school bus headed to a freshman orientation retreat when a white boy suddenly sat next to him and joked that he “didn’t have a father.”

And in the fall, a few months after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Randy was sitting at a lunch table in Latin’s cafeteria when several white boys began joking that they were planning to attend a KKK rally.

“I kind of just took it because I felt like if I showed that they were affecting me they would just keep doing it,” he said. “But it got worse, to the point where people, white people, were just saying the N-word around me as if I wasn’t there.”

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The nonprofit news outlet Injustice Watch provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

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Randy’s story is one of the hundreds shared by current and former Latin students accusing students and teachers of racism, xenophobia, and abuse at the college prep school, according to an anonymous Instagram account with more than 2,700 followers, Latin Survivors.

Similar pages have surfaced in recent weeks focused on other Chicago private schools. Another private prep school near Latin, Francis W. Parker School in the Lincoln Park community, and St. Ignatius College Prep, a private Jesuit school on the Near West Side, also have Instagram pages documenting students’ experiences with racism and anti-Blackness. Those revelations come on the heels of recent outcry over racist transgressions at other highly touted Chicago schools, including the private University of Chicago Lab Schools in Hyde Park, and Walter Payton High School on the Near North Side.

The spokesperson for Latin Survivors, a recent grad who spoke to Injustice Watch on the condition of anonymity, said the group was inspired by Black students who are leading social media campaigns exposing injustice at other top college prep schools across the U.S. The spokesperson said the group is also drawing inspiration from the ongoing uprising against white supremacy and police violence in America.

“We are acting in solidarity with movements across our country demanding structural change in the government,” the spokesperson said. “We’re demanding structural change in institutions that deprive many of us of a healthy high school experience.”

The spokesperson said that a group of current and former students is crafting a set of demands for Latin’s administrators that “span from increasing the power of marginalized students’ voices relative to the board of trustees, to hiring more BIPOC administrators and teachers and restructuring our required curriculum across the school to incorporate the stories and histories of our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students.”

In an email to Latin families and staff several days after Latin Survivors went live, Latin Head of School Randall Dunn, the first Black person to hold that position in Latin’s history, acknowledged that “members of our community have reached out to me and others with reports of racial traumas endured both in the past and recently.”

Dunn promised to “do better,” and “listen.” He invited the Latin community to continue engaging in discussions about race and to provide feedback in a survey that would help inform “a specific plan of action” to be unveiled in July. Dunn’s letter also acknowledged that the culture, systems, and practices at the 132-year-old institution “have promoted racism implicitly and explicitly.” The letter didn’t elaborate.

In a statement emailed to Injustice Watch, Dunn acknowledged that students and alumni were sharing their traumas on social media. The head of school described reading those stories as “extremely painful,” and pledged to identify and address challenges keeping Latin from being an inclusive and anti-racist community.

Injustice Watch asked Latin officials for data on school discipline and academic achievement to explore potential racial disparities. Officials did not respond to the request.

‘I would not recommend Latin to a Black student’

Latin resides in the Gold Coast, one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods. About 1,200 students attend from Pre-k to 12th grade, with lower, middle, and high school grades in different buildings. Tuition ranges from about $33,000 to $37,000 depending on grade. Thirteen percent of students get financial aid from the school, which reported more than $50 million in revenue last year.

About two-in-three Latin students are white in a city where the same proportion of residents are people of color. Asian students and students who identify with more than one race comprise 10% of the student body, respectively. Black and Latinx students each make up 6% of Latin’s student body.

Their teachers are much more likely to be white, hold advanced degrees, and teach in classes with low pupil-instructor ratios compared to Chicago Public Schools teachers. Fewer than one-in-four Latin teachers identify as people of color, according to the school’s latest annual report.

In the U.S., elite independent schools such as Latin have historically catered to a mostly white and affluent population. Students of color remain vastly underrepresented today, but many of the schools have ramped up recruiting efforts targeting them while extending more financial aid to economically disadvantaged families.

However, studies highlight the social and psychological challenges that students of color, especially Black students, face inside the nation’s predominantly white independent schools. That includes feelings of marginalization and other problems that may cause depression and stress, dampen their self-esteem, affect identity development, and hurt their academic performance, among other problems.

Despite the challenges, many Black students and students of color still show resilience in such environments.

Indeed, several current Latin students and alums interviewed by Injustice Watch told stories of confronting authority figures about racism and sexism, raising their voices to fight against oppression, and organizing other students of color. They cited talented and beloved teachers and administrators who supported them. Students also acknowledged the administration has made some attempts to improve Latin’s culture through diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Still, the students and alums characterized Latin as an oppressive environment for people of color where microaggressions and overt acts of racism were overlooked or handled with slaps on the wrist.

Alex Moreno, a 2017 graduate, said that reporting racism at the school was intimidating because of some of the big names associated with Latin, whose board of trustees is stocked with business leaders and millionaires.

Nancy Reagan is the school’s most famous alum. Several members of the wealthy Pritzker family have attended Latin, including Gigi Pritzker, and the children of Illinois’ billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The children of former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a millionaire, also attended. Bill Conway, whose billionaire father recently donated more than $10 million to fund his unsuccessful campaign for Cook County State’s Attorney, is another Latin graduate.

“People said it’s going to be hard, but if you fight every single battle you won’t survive all four years here, you’ll be in a very dark place mentally, you will either transfer or drop out of the school, you will be basically blacklisted by every big name at Latin,” Moreno said.

Randy, the rising senior from South Chicago, said that he attended a leadership conference with hundreds of other Black youth last year and returned to Latin committed to speaking out against racist abuse. That conference, he said, gave him the courage to share his story with Latin Survivors, and with Injustice Watch.

Randy said he and other students “need to know that the administration is on our side and that they’re going to hold students accountable, whether it be taking away their roles in student groups or even expulsion.” That’s essential, he said, to make Latin safe for future Black students and people of color.

Injustice Watch asked Latin’s head of school Dunn several questions about the problems at Latin and how the school planned to respond. He sent Injustice Watch a statement saying that the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis “and too many others” had created an opportunity for Black people and other marginalized groups “to share experiences that have gone unspoken and unheard for far too long.”

“Latin’s Board of Trustees and administration are committed to empathic listening and accountable action,” Dunn said. “We pledge to ongoing introspection to build our individual and institutional racial awareness and literacy, and to continue to identify and overcome obstacles that keep us from realizing our goal of becoming an inclusive, anti-racist community.”

The changes will come too late for Keiara Stallworth, who just graduated in June after attending Latin since the fifth grade. Before Latin, she had only ever attended predominantly Black schools in Austin, the West Side neighborhood where she lived at the time. She said her parents enrolled her at Latin because she was a gifted child, and they feared that the neighborhood schools would not be challenging enough. When she arrived at Latin, she was one of just a handful of Black people in her grade and often was the only Black person in her classes, she said.

Stallworth, who plans to attend college in Atlanta this year, remembers her white classmates, many of whom lived in the affluent North Side communities near the school, paying a disturbing amount of attention to her hair. She said it took her “two years to learn how to code-switch,” and that other students would ridicule her or shoot her strange looks when she did things like say “axe” instead of “ask” or made minor grammatical mistakes.

Later during high school, she wrestled with anti-Blackness directed toward Black girls and women at Latin. She remembers videos and social media posts circulating among classmates that called Black girls ugly or said they all had AIDS. Now that she’s graduated, Stallworth looks back on her Latin experience with mixed feelings.

“I received a wonderful education, but at what price? I haven’t been separated from Latin long enough to know if it was worth it,” she said. “But I would not recommend Latin to a Black student. At this moment we are trying to make a change, but until that change happens, I don’t think it’s a good environment.”

Randy’s sister, Marilyn Pierre, arrived at Latin in 2010 from High Jump, a free academic enrichment program based in Chicago that operates on the campuses of Parker, the University of Chicago Lab Schools, and Latin, where it is headquartered. According to its website, High Jump helps prepare elementary students from households “of limited economic means” for entrance exams and academic success at prestigious public and private college prep schools. The majority of the participants are students of color, unlike Latin’s student body.

“I mistakenly thought that High Jump was Latin, that the community and support would be there,” said Marilyn Pierre, now a 24-year-old grad student. “I left from a classroom at High Jump that was 60-70% Black and brown to a class where I was the only Black person in the space. That was something I never had to experience before.”

Freshman year, someone posting on an anonymous message board referred to her and her group of friends as “the ghetto girls” and questioned why a white girl who hung out with them would be seen with them.

In her sophomore year, she was part of a working group focused on diversity and inclusion, and a white girl in the group tried to get her replaced with another Black girl. “She didn’t like how I talked about race…I was very blunt,” Marilyn Pierre said. She says the faculty member who fielded the complaint, a woman of color, threw it out and supported her.

The difference between her experience at Latin and her brother’s is that, while she endured microaggressions and overt marginalization, people seem even bolder now, she said.

“It was a little more covert, people weren’t openly saying the N-word, at least around me,” she said. “It’s just maybe what’s going on in politics after Trump was elected, maybe people feel more emboldened to be how they want to be.”

The cost of trauma

While Latin Survivors’ central focus is anti-Blackness, the submissions also include stories of alleged sexual misconduct by teachers, and sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx, and anti-Muslim statements by students, parents, and educators.

One story reads: “I am of Indian descent. There was a kid of British descent next to me in class. The teacher made jokes about how the British kid was always next to me because he was ‘colonizing’ me.”

Another story says: “My Mexican mother was waiting outside the building to pick me up when another mom asked her if she was my nanny.” One student dressed “as a Mexican” for Halloween. After students confronted him, he claimed it was fine since “a Latinx student wasn’t offended.”

Another submitter shared how after a Puerto Rican Muslim speaker addressed students at a school assembly, a white student walked up to a Mexican-American girl and said he didn’t know what was worse, that the school had invited “an illegal” to speak, or that he the speaker was “a terrorist.”

The girl in that story, Alex Moreno, is now a 21-year-old woman attending college. But the Pilsen resident still cried as she retold the story to Injustice Watch. Her father was applying for his citizenship at the time, she said, so the comment hit close to home.

Moreno graduated from Latin in 2017 and says she is still unpacking the trauma from her experience. That isn’t to say she didn’t fight back at Latin. She was active in Latinx student groups that pushed for more racial inclusion at the school and participated in student focus groups centered on race and equity.

But she still replays memories of her early days at Latin, when she was a 13-year-old freshman who “nobody wanted to be friends with.” She said most students in the upper grades had either been at Latin for years or arrived from wealthy private middle schools, where they had existing relationships they brought with them to Latin.

Like Marilyn Pierre, Moreno was introduced to Latin via the High Jump enrichment program after they sent an outreach team to her middle school. Moreno, who came from a school that shared one projector, was amazed when she saw smartboards and MacBooks in every class at Latin, she said, and she wanted access to those resources. But as a low-income student of color, she struggled a lot with imposter syndrome, she said.

“I had students say to my face: low-income students should be grateful they’re even allowed at Latin because if it wasn’t for our parents making these donations they wouldn’t be here, as if those donations and the price of tuition was enough to compensate for the trauma,” she said. (About 85% of Latin families donated to the school in the 2018-19 academic year, contributing more than $5 million, according to Latin’s latest annual report.)

Moreno also accused some teachers of reinforcing the idea that she wasn’t supposed to be there. She remembers a teacher asking why, if English was her first language, she didn’t write essays better. She also remembers teachers allowing students to get away with comments in social studies classes deriding immigrants and other marginalized groups, saying things like “why do we have to learn about terrorists?” during a unit on Islam.

Like other current and former students at Latin, she said there was a culture of silence around racial injustice. The school treated violations like isolated incidents and rarely punished offenders, she said. Fellow students also advised against speaking out, and told her she should expect racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which was a hard truth to swallow for a 13-year-old. But she said she followed that advice for most of her time at Latin out of concern for her future. She said she had a strong drive to be successful at Latin because she’s the child of immigrants.

“I thought everything that I’ve been taught to strive for, like financial stability and securing safe housing, going to a good college, these things would have been threatened if I spoke up, and I would have basically wasted my opportunity to go to Latin, which is supposed to give you more opportunities to step up in life than you could have ever imagined if you stayed in your neighborhood,” she said.