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Student petition: Combat racism in Pinellas schools

A group making the push wants to see protests turned into action, with revised texts, a fuller accounting of history and teacher training.
Kindergarten students at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg raise their hands during a science lesson. A student petition is pushing for curriculum changes in Pinellas County public schools that reflect concerns raised during recent protests about racial injustice.
Kindergarten students at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg raise their hands during a science lesson. A student petition is pushing for curriculum changes in Pinellas County public schools that reflect concerns raised during recent protests about racial injustice. [ Times (2006) ]
Published Jun. 19, 2020
Updated Jun. 19, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Three high school students are leading a petition drive aimed at addressing and removing racial bias from Pinellas County public schools.

The document asks for sweeping changes, from the selection of authors studied in English class to the kind of training teachers receive.

“We are demanding justice for our communities,” says the document posted on Instagram, making reference to heightened public awareness of racial injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“Conversations and education about systemic and institutionalized racism must not only take place in the streets, but also in our classrooms,” it says. “Our school district has a responsibility to examine the roles that privilege and bias play within its walls.”

The petition, entitled “Decolonize Pinellas County Schools Curriculum,” was dated June 7 and addressed to school superintendent Mike Grego, principals, and the School Board.

The Tampa Bay Times placed calls to all seven members of the School Board, but those who answered said they had not yet seen the petition. A district spokeswoman, Isabel Mascarenas, said Grego had not yet seen it either. The Times provided them a copy, and will post an update when the district responds.

St. Petersburg High student Yamira Patterson co-authored the petition.
St. Petersburg High student Yamira Patterson co-authored the petition. [ Courtesy of Yamira Patterson ]

Yamira Patterson, a 16-year-old rising junior at St. Petersburg High who co-authored the petition, said she has received encouragement from some educators and former students, and more than 200 signatures.

Patterson said she is a student in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous course of study that she finds lacking. She said school is taught from a colonialist perspective, in an atmosphere that tolerates racial bias and microaggressions against students of color. “Teachers skate around the difficult topics,” she said.

She gave Grego credit for issuing a statement about the police-involved killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and others. Grego called for the school district and community “to commit ourselves to this work, to the examination of our own practices and to disrupting the barriers which negatively impact our students, families and staff.”

But Patterson and the other students want to see changes that are more specific.

Among them:

● Teach the history of systemic housing inequality, including redlining, racist banking policies and the racial wealth gap.

● Teach students about implicit bias, microaggressions and white supremacy. Encourage students to question their own implicit biases. If addressing white supremacy as a general issue, include a discussion of antisemitism.

● In government and history classes, include lessons on the prison-industrial complex, the war on drugs, and the impact mass incarceration has on low-income minority communities.

The students are calling for monthly sensitivity training for teachers, taught by black and brown instructors. They want a thorough examination of text selections to ensure the authors reflect racial diversity, and that history texts show multiple perspectives.

“Invite activist groups and non-profit organizations dedicated to serving marginalized communities to the Pinellas County School District to supplement curricular learning,” the petition says. “We would like to recognize the teachers already engaging in racially inclusive teaching methods. However, these actions should no longer be optional.”

The student petition follows a sharp letter from Maria Scruggs, president of the St. Petersburg Branch NAACP, that came in response to Grego’s statement. In it, Scruggs reminded Grego of missteps that eroded the organization’s trust of the school district.

To Patterson, who is planning a career in law, the problems are more fundamental than Grego’s interactions with community leaders. She said that as far back as middle school, she has been aware that school is taught from a perspective that does not reflect her reality.

“A lot of the things mentioned in the petition, those are part of my daily life as a female, living in a place that people consider ghetto and hood,” she said.

“I’ve lived in a food desert. My family has experienced housing insecurity. I would always question, why is it that in my community, no one owns their own homes? Why is there so much poverty? And why is it that the police are always here? Why, 30 minutes away, can I just make a right and walk into this other community where every lawn is perfectly manicured and there are no police officers?”

As middle school led to high school, Patterson said she built a social media presence and networked with others with similar concerns. “I always saw the puzzle pieces,” she said.

She realized, she said, that school taught more about World War I and World War II than the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. She said people called her a racist. She experienced “gaslighting,” with people saying things like, “it isn’t really that bad.” When a fellow student used the N word, “that person really isn’t like that.”

Patterson said she realizes the petition calls for a long list of extensive changes.

“My hope is that a lot of these things will eventually happen, five years from now, maybe 10,” she said.