Just about every day, current and former students recalled, a teacher at an Indianapolis high school would mock students of color in his classes.
Targeting those learning English, he would insult them, use slurs against them, and, students said, even told one to “go back to your country.”
The Perry Meridian High School classes would grow quiet and uncomfortable, watching the students he ridiculed become visibly embarrassed. But the teacher shrugged off anyone who tried to confront him, students said, and administrators dismissed their concerns about him and other teachers, too.
“I never expected a teacher to be outright blatantly racist toward a student,” said Gabby, a 2019 graduate who is Hispanic and asked that her last name not be used.
In interviews with Chalkbeat, nearly a dozen Perry Meridian students and recent graduates described verbal abuse from this teacher and others, a lack of action from administrators, and a fear among students of speaking up.
The district — whose student body is unusually diverse for Indiana but has a teaching force that is 96% white — launched an investigation into the teachers and says it is committed to building an anti-racist community.
But months later, students have seen no changes. That and what they perceive as the administration’s previous inaction show the difficulty in rooting out institutionalized racism and changing a culture that students said has tolerated racist behavior for years.
Early this summer, racial justice protests across the country motivated students to protest and publish their allegations on social media.
Racist remarks in class
They tweeted about racist remarks they’d heard in class, building off each other and discussing similar experiences across classes and years. Until now, some students said they didn’t realize their teachers’ comments were racist or that others felt as hurt as they did at the school.
Three students organized a rally for racial justice outside a district middle school, where they circulated a flyer that named teachers they accused of racist behavior. More than 1,000 people signed a petition demanding that school leaders take action against teachers who have made racist comments.
When questioned by Chalkbeat, the district issued a written statement. “We are committed to building an anti-racist community where everyone feels safe, included, and valued,” district spokesperson Keesha Hughes said in a statement. “We will also thoroughly investigate every report of discrimination, harassment, and bullying.”
As part of its investigation, the district will ask accused teachers or staff to respond to the complaints. District officials declined to say which teachers or how many teachers they were reviewing, since the investigation is still pending. Chalkbeat is not naming teachers because the district has not confirmed who it is investigating and has declined to comment on personnel issues.
At least one of the teachers accused by students still works for the district and did not return messages from Chalkbeat seeking comment. The district’s teachers union, Perry Education Association, did not return a request for comment.
School officials are still working to identify and reach out to students who voiced the complaints, Hughes said — a process complicated by some using social media accounts without their full names attached.
Problematic school climate
One expert said the students’ complaints warrant attention because they’re describing a problematic school culture.
“It has a lot to do with the school climate, and who allows teachers to get away with that type of language,” IUPUI education Professor Monica Medina said.
Perry Township school board President Steve Johnson said the board is listening to students’ concerns. It adopted an anti-racism policy at its most recent meeting, and the assistant superintendent is developing a program to combat biases, sexism, and racism, although details were not immediately made publicly available.
Johnson said the board will monitor over the next year how the district takes action on its anti-racism stance.
“We have to make sure that we live up to those policies that we adopted,” he said.
How school leaders handle the investigation could be part of that, and could send a message on how committed administrators are to dismantling racism.
“They always talk about how diverse Perry is, how accepting everyone is, but there’s so many kids that have to deal with racism, and the school never does anything about it,” said Elly Kimbual, a junior whose family emigrated from Burma. “I feel like it’s just embarrassing.”
Perry Township diversity
Perry Township is a district of 17,000 students on the south side of Indianapolis. The area is home to a large population of Burmese refugees, making the student body more racially diverse than many other Indiana districts.
Students of color make up a slim majority of the district. About 30% of students are Asian, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Black, and nearly 5% are multi-racial. Almost a third of the student body are English language learners.
Medina, the IUPUI professor, said that when teachers bully students learning English, those students’ parents might not understand the school system and won’t take action.
“That’s why teachers do this — because they know they can get away with it,” she said. “It’s called white privilege.”
Medina, who leads a course on anti-racist and multicultural teaching, said the alleged racist comments constitute bullying and a barrier to learning. Hands down, she said, it’s racism.
“Anyone who would say that they’re not racist doesn’t understand racism,” Medina said.
The school board would have reason to fire a teacher if it had written or video evidence that they were racist, she said. In Hammond last fall, for example, the board placed a high school teacher on administrative leave after a video was posted showing a student confronting the teacher for uttering a racial slur.
But in the case of Perry Township, where students base accusations on their memory and have no hard evidence, Medina suggested the district place teachers on probation and mandate anti-bias training.
What fosters racist behavior
A teacher might not realize why their actions were hurtful, she said. Even teachers who lose their jobs could easily move to another school district and cause the same harm to students.
However, Medina said it’s not enough for a district to punish one or two teachers and require anti-racist training. When an allegation surfaces, administrators ought to assess their school’s culture and the policies that allowed racist behavior to persist.
“Sometimes it’s that climate that gives teachers the license to lash out at students,” she said.
Medina said schools shouldn’t dismiss what students say.
“A lot of times, people are just afraid of the power of young people,” she said.
Perry Township has a hotline for students, staff, or community members to report bullying, including racism.
And at least on paper, the district doesn’t tolerate such harassment. “Perry Township Schools condemns offensive behaviors that violate our values of Diversity and Inclusion and betray every students’ expectations of safety and belonging,” spokesperson Hughes said in a statement.
The school board acknowledged at a June 8 meeting that more work needs to be done to confront racism within the district.
Johnson told fellow board members that the district can’t be afraid to let students speak their minds, according to meeting minutes, and encouraged an open dialogue — even if it makes officials uncomfortable.
Racial stereotypes from teachers
In addition to hearing outwardly racist remarks, some Asian students told Chalkbeat that they have felt subjected to racial stereotypes from teachers who expected them to act like a “model minority.”
Thawng Hmung, a 19-year-old Perry Meridian graduate, said the district’s claims of appreciation for its diverse student body felt like a show. He thinks his school’s racial tensions derive from an influx of refugees into a majority-white community.
His family immigrated as refugees from Burma when he was 4. In high school, he ran for class president so other Burmese students could see themselves represented in school leadership. But the position made him feel like he couldn’t speak out against the school and led him to feel complicit in its racism.
Hmung said he’s felt insecure about his identity since graduating high school. He worries about his two younger brothers, who are 8 and 12.
“There needs to be an honest conversation on how the school culture, students, and teachers perpetuate these issues,” he said.
Rachel, a Perry Meridian junior who asked that her last name not be used, said her teacher’s comments were rude and unnecessary. But some people in her freshman year class laughed when the teacher made racist jokes.
“That,” she said, “is probably why he continued to do it.”
Reach Emily Isaacman at firstname.lastname@example.org.