Rising seniors Molly McPherson of Blacksburg High (far left) and Kolby Brown of Christiansburg High (second from left) organized Tuesday’s protest rally that drew a crowd of more than 200 people despite a steady drizzle.
By Pat Brown
Rising seniors Kolby Brown of Christiansburg High School and Molly McPherson of Blacksburg High School organized a protest outside the Montgomery County Schools Administration Building Tuesday evening. A crowd of more than 200 people gathered in support despite a steady drizzle.
The organizers are both members of Black Student Awareness clubs at their schools. They said they used social media to organize the rally and extended the invitation to students who attend Auburn and Eastern Montgomery high schools.
Student organizers came equipped with a list of practices they called discriminatory, including statistics on the number of disciplinary actions taken in the district against black students compared with those meted out to white students. They cited the low percentage of black students enrolled in advanced placement classes as another discrepancy. They had statistics on black and white students expelled from schools, illustrating another imbalance.
Josh Thompson, an English teacher at BHS, was one of several teachers present and the first to arrive. “I’m here to say Black Lives Matter and to support the students,” he said.
Brown criticized Superintendent Dr. Mark Miear for not responding until yesterday to his weeks old request for changes in district-wide practices. “It doesn’t take weeks to show your support,” Brown said. “I want to know that the people who are teaching me care about me.”
Penny Franklin, the lone person of color on the school board, also spoke, calling for mandatory professional development for county school employees. She got cheers when she praised Gov. Ralph Northam for making Juneteenth (the day that marks slavery’s end) a state holiday. But she said that locally “some awareness training has to happen or we are still enslaved.”
A white adult spoke angrily when she recalled that her daughter was taught that slavery “wasn’t so bad” in a district elementary classroom. One former professor who said he is new to the area offered to evaluate the district’s history curriculum to see if it contains accurate and sufficient black history content.
Brown urged students present to call out classmates who use the “N” word, an experience he and several speakers said they had. “We need your help,” he told the mostly white crowd. He said he wanted to prevent that from happening to his seven-year-old brother.
“The white people who came before have failed,” said one speaker.
Dr. Miear spoke to the crowd saying there was nothing he disagreed with in the claims made by speakers. “I am committed to us doing better,” he said. Pointing to his two daughters, who he described as originally from Guatemala, he said, “It scares me to death the discrimination they are going to face.”
Testimonials he heard saddened his heart, Dr. Miear said. “And the ‘N’ word is unacceptable.
That’s not going to happen in our schools under my watch,” he said.
He said the district has tripled the number of African-American teachers in the last three years.
“Yes, Black Lives Matter,” he said. Board member Franklin echoed the chant.
“Not all board members will say that,” challenged one of the crowd.
“I am a school board member and I say it,” answered Mark Cherbaka. “Black Lives Matter.”
Miear said he was going to work on the list of grievances the students had crafted. “I’m going to need your help,” he told the crowd.
School Board Chairman Gunin Kiran was in the crowd handing out cards that urged people to join an online dialogue about overcoming racism in the school community at MCPS.link/thought.