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Bard Early College students take on social issues


Students at one of CMSD's newest and most innovative high schools this week dove deeply into a timely and compelling discussion about social justice issues. An informal student-led forum at the school on Wednesday was spurred in part by the tragic death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and other shootings that have drawn national attention.

Student Angelique McGuire said she thought she might get three or four fellow students to attend her Social Justice Club meeting at Bard High School Early College on Wednesday to talk about sensitive matters of race and the relationship between young people and police.

Instead, more than two-dozen students crammed into Room 125 at the West Side high school and the lunch-hour discussion stretched out for nearly two hours.

“It was great to see how many students care and to get the support from the teachers and other adults,” she said. “And at first, I didn’t think anyone would say the things out loud that they’ve been thinking or saying to their friends.”

But the students, teachers and guests became increasingly comfortable in sharing feelings that were sometimes raw and then discussed how they could play a role in finding a solution to historically volatile issues of race and violence.

Principal Dumaine Williams sat in on part of the meeting and surprised students with pizza and soft drinks as it went on past 2 p.m. He said he encourages open dialogue and critical thinking at the school.

He had introduced Angelique to the CMSD Board of Education Tuesday night when Bard hosted the board's monthly business meeting. He emphasized the student-driven nature of the forum and the education at Bard – both with appropriate and effective boundaries.

“This is the kind of thinking we want to encourage in our students and in a space that is safe for them,” he said. Students in the meeting were not identified by name unless they agreed to be interviewed after the session.

Bard, just off West 117th Street on the city’s West Side, is one of four new high schools opened by the District this year. Its students can earn a CMSD diploma and an associate degree from Bard, an independent college in New York.    Bard operates three similar schools in New York and New Jersey.
Angelique, who several weeks ago sat in on a meeting with U.S Attorney General Eric Holder when he was in Cleveland to release the Department of Justice report on the city Police Department, said she has attended rallies in the aftermath of the death of Tamir Rice but was longing for a forum just for young people to talk about their feelings after the tragedy.

“I was the only young person there, the only one not wearing a business suit, and I feel like young people were not being heard in any way on this,” she said of the meeting with Holder, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams and other officials.

She led the discussion Wednesday but had asked for help from Sarah Schneider, recruitment and admissions coordinator at the school.

Schneider invited several others, including Joe Worthy, the Ohio director of Youth Leadership and Organizing for the Children’s Defense Fund. Worthy brought along two CMSD graduates now involved in the group, Eva Barrett (Cleveland School of the Arts, 2014), a freshman at Case Western Reserve University, and Jahqwahn Watson (Lincoln-West, 2013), a sophomore at the College of Wooster.

Bard history teacher John Adams also helped guide the discussion, often reminding students of historical issues – from the Civil War through the Hough riots of the 1960s.

“I think this is a chance for us at Bard to have a voice in a national discussion,” he said. “I see you as a part of the solution, and as adults we just need to see how we can help you.”

Three different students said they had trouble relating to family members who had little sympathy for Tamir. Melitine Pikakos, a freshman, said she also has had trouble explaining to family why she “cares so much about this thing.”

Tamir "was a 12-year-old child,” she said. “The media has portrayed him as a young adult, so it makes him seem more dangerous.”

Adams said sociologists note that “black children don’t get full childhood in America, but white childhoods get extended,” using their example of white college students getting a pass from police for crimes that would be felonies -- say, possession of drugs or assault -- while young black men are often incarcerated on similar charges.

Natalia Cordero, a junior, said she has been struck by the disparity of race in another way.
“I was at a protest in Detroit, and the crowd was almost all white people,” she said. “I’m sad and angry, too, and there are a lot of white people who are concerned about this, but that’s not often seen.”

Eventually, the conversation turned toward what’s next.

“What can we do now?” asked Cordero. “Protests have their place, but sometimes even at those, people are doing illegal stuff, and it's not really about ‘What can we do to fix this?’”

Adams suggested a student summit late in the school year, but organizers like the Defense Fund’s Barrett, who spoke to Cleveland City Council earlier this month, said the students were already taking action by attending rallies and holding this week’s forum.

“This is your first step,” she said. “As we’re told, ‘Don’t let your means be your ends.’ Stay involved and help change your world.”

Angelique said she vacillated between hope and despair in the days after Tamir Rice’s death – and even during the discussion Wednesday.

“If a crime is wrong, morally wrong without looking at color, it’s wrong,” Angelique McGuire said. “If we could just recognize that as a community, I think we’ll be OK.”