How Naperville District 203 aims to 'be better' after student charged with hate crime

  • Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, leads a forum Thursday morning about implicit bias as part of the district's initiatives to make all students feel safe and welcome.

      Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, leads a forum Thursday morning about implicit bias as part of the district's initiatives to make all students feel safe and welcome. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, says middle and high schools in the district have experienced an uptick in use of racial slurs this year, but the district is trying to address the behavior with an increased focus on welcoming and affirming all students.

      Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, says middle and high schools in the district have experienced an uptick in use of racial slurs this year, but the district is trying to address the behavior with an increased focus on welcoming and affirming all students. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 11/21/2019 3:10 PM

The Naperville school district where a student is facing hate crime charges after he was accused of making a racist online post also is experiencing an uptick in the use of racial slurs at the middle school and high school levels, said Rakeda Leaks, who is in her second year as the district's executive director of diversity and inclusion.

The trend in Naperville Unit District 203 seems to be connected to white students using a vulgar racially-charged word after being given a figurative "pass" from black students, Leaks said Thursday during the first of two forums about race and implicit bias.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Superintendent Dan Bridges said he recently discussed the use of the slur with a parent of a student who has experienced race-based discrimination.

"Use of that word is unacceptable in any time in any place," Bridges said.

The forums had been scheduled even before a 14-year-old Naperville Central High School student was charged with two felony counts of hate crime and one misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct for a Craigslist post made Nov. 15 that showed a picture of a black student and said "Slave for Sale (NAPERVILLE)."

Bridges said he met this week with the mother of the student whose image was shown in the post and learned "this was not the first experience this young man has had in our schools regarding racism."

"We need to be better," Bridges said he told the student's mother.

The district had been planning Thursday's events, called "Courageous Conversations about Race and Implicit Bias," for about eight weeks as part of its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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The district of roughly 16,500 students is experiencing demographic changes. According to the Illinois Report Card, District 203's student population this year is 62.4% white, 17.2% Asian, 10.8% Hispanic, 4.7% black, 4.7% two or more races, 0.2% American Indian and 0.1% Pacific islander

"Racism, hatred, discrimination in any way should not be present in our schools," Bridges said. "It upsets me and bothers me that I stand before you today acknowledging that acts of racism and hatred exist in our schools."

The morning forum gave roughly 100 participants the chance to weigh in about the role District 203 should have in educating students about racial slurs.

Parent Liz Joo said the district should inform students of the harm caused by words that make people feel less than human. She said such education should start before sixth grade when many students get cellphones and connect to the world of social media.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Joo said students can post online before they grasp the context of racial slurs and the ripple effects they can cause. A slur posted online becomes worse than one-on-one bullying, she said, because it gains a broader reach.

"You are not just hurting that child," Joo said. "Now you are hurting a large group of people."

Naperville residents have experienced the spreading of such statements through the national -- and even international -- interest in a situation Oct. 26 at Buffalo Wild Wings, in which a multiracial group of 18 was asked to change seats because employees told them a couple known to make racist statements did not want to sit next to them.

But even when the news is about racial divisions, Aurora parent Tony Ramirez said, good can come of it.

"We as a culture and a society need to celebrate our differences," Ramirez said, "not focus on the negatives of these situations."

Bridges took a similar tack as he took responsibility for creating a learning environment in which all students -- no matter their race, background or amount of time in the district -- feel safe and welcome.

"We need to agree to honor and respect the diversity of opinions, values and beliefs," he said, "but come together as one community to ensure that every individual feels safe and feels like they're an important part of this community."

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