IGNACIO – About 21 students walked out of Ignacio High School on Friday afternoon in protest of what they perceive as a lack of action by school administrators in dealing with racist and discriminatory behavior directed from some white students toward students of color.
The students assembled along the roadside at Browning Avenue and Becker Street, a block from the high school. Students waved signs that read “Don’t silence our voices, hear us,” “IHS doesn’t stand with racism,” “Open your eyes” and “Honk if you hate racism.”
Drivers often honked, and students responded with cheers, applause and thanks.
Students at the protest said there is a disparity between punishments doled out to white students versus students of color who had gotten into fights over racial slurs, with white students mainly receiving a “slap on the wrist” while students of color being temporarily suspended.
Ignacio School District Superintendent Christopher deKay said the walkout gives the administration pause. The administration will “learn some things, and move forward in a good way,” he said Friday during an interview with The Durango Herald.
“The kids, they have concern about equality and racism and so they planned a peaceful protest, a walkout,” deKay said. “Before they went out, we tried – we had a town hall where we could talk about things and things we could do better and ways to move things forward. They’re doing something in a peaceful way. On some level, we need to be paying attention and we need to be proactive about what we’re doing.”
The incident that sparked the protest involved a fight that broke out between two students earlier this month, said freshman student Elaina Manuelito.
One student used slurs against another student, which prompted a fight, Manuelito said. The student who used slurs “didn’t get anything but a slap on the wrist,” Manuelito said. But the other student, was suspended for three days, she said.
Jeremy LeMasters, a parent of four with his youngest three still in the school district, said there has been multiple fights this month over racial slurs being directed toward students of color.
Isabella LeMasters, a junior at Ignacio High School, said she was removed from the student senate board because she chose to participate in the walkout, which she helped organize along with Alexis Ortiz, another junior.
Ortiz was removed from the student senate, she said.
Before the walkout, Isabella LeMasters said the high school hosted an assembly to bring “both sides” together for discussion about student concerns of unaddressed racism.
Isabella LeMasters, who is Black, said she is called the N-word on a daily basis. She said a student in her Spanish class calls her the N-word every day, right in front of the teacher, and the student is never told to stop and has not had disciplinary action taken against him.
She said teachers and staff don’t know where to start with mediating concerns about racism between students.
“They gathered us all together (for the assembly) and told us to talk about it,” Isabella LeMasters said. “And they didn’t seem like they knew what they were even going to start to do. They were asking us for advice on how we want them to fix it instead of them just knowing what to do.”
DeKay, the superintendent, said he doesn’t know anything about the two students who were removed from student senate for participating in the walkout. But at the end of the day, he said the district wants students in class. The district wants to pay attention to social justice, but it also wants to grow academically.
DeKay said he hasn’t heard any concerns or reports about students directing racist remarks at students of color.
“We have a staff that’s very cognizant of our cultural differences and very supportive of it,” he said. “When we know about things in the office, we work hard to investigate and to do the right thing.”
Stephanie LeMasters, Isabella LeMaster’s mother, provided the Herald with a copy of a letter she sent to the high school principal and superintendent urging the district to address racism in the classroom. She said she hadn’t received a reply from the school district.
DeKay said he was aware of the letter and had responded to Stephanie LeMasters by email Friday.
Jeremy LeMasters said he is angry when he hears his kids come home from school and talk about how they faced racism from their fellow classmates.
“I’m almost 50, dude,” Jeremy LeMasters said. “I’ve been living in Colorado almost my whole life. I’ve been dealing with this (expletive) since I was a little kid. My oldest son, he’s 26, he graduated from here. Same stuff with him, you know? He didn’t want me to do anything about it, though.”
LeMasters said when his eldest son was in school, his son didn’t want to rock the boat, get in trouble or be ostracized. He said the whole situation is heartbreaking for him.
“My daughter has sobbed literally for days about this stuff,” he said. “And they love going to school. They’re good kids, they’re good students, they don’t get in trouble.”