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Current Events Montgomery High School: a case study in youth advocacy

Aug. 25, 2020
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On June 23rd, the Montgomery Board of Education held a meeting over Zoom. Middle-aged board members peered down, chin first, at their devices. In the first half hour, white teachers congratulated each other on the creation of “Heritage Day,” an event where the middle schoolers showcase their diverse backgrounds through cultural dances. Then, the agenda turned to racism endemic to the school system. Board members stated they felt “heartbroken” over the accounts of racism they heard. All the while, the Zoom chat lit up. Students and alumni decried what they perceived as empty platitudes. They also questioned why the board members had so much time to speak while students and alumni had so little. In the time students did get to speak, they shared their experiences. One student explained, her voice slightly tremulous, how guidance counselors dissuaded Black students from applying to four-year universities. The Zoom chat continued to ping, this time with messages of support: “YAS QUEEN!” and “GO OFF!” and an abundance of clapping emojis. 

Montgomery High School is a 13-minute drive from Princeton University. On this drive, one passes the rolling green hills of a local golf course. Located in a township with a median income of $155,334, Montgomery High School is one of the rare public schools with a large swimming pool. It takes its seniors to Disneyland and its band to Europe. Some community members view this high school as the town’s beating heart: parents are known to move in so their children can attend a “blue ribbon” school, and then move out after their children graduate. 2010 Census data shows that the town is 62.4% white, 33.5% East Asian and Indian, and just 1.8% Black. 

The small number of Black people in the community has negative implications for Black students attending Montgomery High School. Says one Black student, “The faculty and teachers don’t do enough...especially because of the low percentage of Black people at the school. But we’re still there. We still matter.” This student has been doggedly reporting racism to administrators since she was in seventh grade. She’s now a rising junior, and has yet to see any real urgency. In one incident, a white student called her the n-word. When she reported the incident, “he said he didn’t say it and [just got] off the hook.” Nia Pretto, an alumna, recalled how white students debated whether or not slavery was necessary. Another alum, Malachi Clemons, recalled how a white girl reacted with disgust when he walked into a room at a party he was hosting. And this discrimination also comes from their East Asian, Indian, and Latinx peers. 

Nowadays, kids don’t propagate old-school racism. Today, maltreatment of Black individuals coexists with a fetishization of Black culture. The n-word is used not only to denigrate Black students, but to seem cool. A Black student said that a white member of her cheer team told her she only made the cut for diversity. Meanwhile, the white girls on this cheer team tan themselves well beyond their natural skin tone. 

Fetishization of Black culture is widespread. There are also specific ways Montgomery culture weighs heavily on Black students. The “Montgomery Bubble” is a well-established part of the school’s mythos about itself. Every person I interviewed referenced it independently—but not everyone is on the same page as to what this bubble is. Adults often reference it caustically, characterizing students as goldfish who cannot see outside their bowl. Liam Lynch, an alum, stated that the “Bubble” confers privilege and dampens the need for empathy. The general consensus among white and Asian students is that this “Bubble” is protective. 

But Black students aren’t protected from the outside world by this bubble. Says one Black student, “We do live in a complete bubble, but since I grew up being a minority, I saw how I was viewed in the real world.” Still, Black students say that to their parents, the calculation is worth it. Racism exists on every corner of the Earth. At least at Montgomery, it also comes with a good education. 

For Black students to face racism at a high school is on every level a betrayal. First, it is a betrayal by the kids with whom they grew up. Black students state that they began to face degradation for their race in middle school. Their peers treated them with basic respect for 12 to 13 years, until they didn’t. It is also a betrayal by faculty and teachers who are supposed to play protective roles. The school website states that “Montgomery Township Schools has always had programs in place to educate students about character education and bullying.” The school’s anti-bullying infrastructure should also extend to protect Black students, yet it doesn’t. 

A group of alumni has made it their mission to revamp this infrastructure by presenting the Board of Education with a call to action. This call to action proposes ways to include Black history in the curriculum, required reading suggestions, and ways to improve lessons, such as including more small group discussions. A lauded high school such as Montgomery inculcates a sense of professionalism within its students. It offers extracurricular activities such as Model United Nations, Mock Trial, and Future Business Leaders of America. It is then easier for a Montgomery student or alum to understand what policy is, or how to conduct oneself at board meetings, or how to talk to knowledgeable and powerful adults. In short, alumni are in effect using the tools they gained at Montgomery to ask for change at Montgomery. 

Another aspect of advocacy is meeting with faculty members to discuss policy suggestions. These meetings have had varying levels of success. In one meeting, the students and alumni confronted a faculty member over the way guidance counselors have underestimated Black students. This faculty member deflected by stating that there were three POC on staff. In another meeting, faculty members were not only sympathetic, but eager; Athena Barrett, an alum, recalls that “They had tried to incorporate books on race, or books by Black authors, and were always afraid of what community members might say...but now we have the backing of everyone we were concerned about before.”

This group of alumni is less a neat cluster and more a sprawling network. It consists mostly of Montgomery graduates from within the last three years who were displaced by COVID-19. The group came together with astonishing speed. Small groups of people, usually already friends, saw other small groups of people at local protests or meetings, reached out, and joined together. One group presented a letter to the Board of Education on June 17th; another group, with a similar idea, reached out on June 19th. Within two days, the two groups were in a Zoom meeting with each other. 

These unions weren’t always seamless. One group was criticized by another for not consulting current Black students in their actions, and instead speaking from their own perspectives. For current students, racism is an inextricable part of their daily life at Montgomery. It comes from adults who have enormous sway over their futures. For alumni, racism at Montgomery is a memory, albeit a painful one. This issue was rapidly addressed: Black students were contacted and brought on board in a span of a few days, and the two groups continued to work together. This is another prominent aspect of today’s advocacy. There is no single figurehead or leader from whom opinion trickles down. Every person is fluent in the language of social justice. Every person has the vocabulary and willingness to ask for more from their peers, to ask for better.

For many, advocating for change at their former high school is their first brush with advocacy on this scale. When asked, alumni have said that this is because the high school is knowable, the ways it can change concrete. It’s also because the high school itself has signaled willingness to change. For example, the school superintendent Damien Pappa reached out to students after a student-led protest. While the impact of advocates is powerful on its own, having the administration support rather than hinder their prerogatives is the quickest way to lasting change. 

The project that these students and alumni have taken on is grand in scale and ambition. But these young people are also pushing for something that should already be theirs. In many ways, they’re fighting for oxygen. When asked what in this moment they would still remember in the future, alumni and current students gave similar answers. They hope to be proud that they weren’t bystanders. They hope that the tools they found valuable in this project, like how to listen, will be lifelong. They hope to transmit a message of the possibility of change to future generations. They speculate, tentatively, that the future looks bright.