Marysville-Pilchuck High School’s Martin Luther King Jr. assembly in January caused some unrest with local parents and school officials responded by sending out a letter that alienated some community members and students of color.
School officials said that the letter was a mistake and met with students, parents, staff and community members at a listening meeting on Feb. 20 to hear their concerns.
At an M-PHS assembly for Martin Luther King Jr. Day a step team from Everett’s Mariner High School gave a performance and then advocated for Black Lives Matter.
“We say justice for all, but where’s the justice for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and all other innocent lives that were lost,” said a Mariner High School student at the assembly.
Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland were people of color from across the country killed by police officers while Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch member.
“I had a conversation with my kids about that assembly. They said they never felt more comfortable in the space, to be represented and to see faces that looked like them,” said Jacque Julien, a woman of color and parent of two children who attend M-PHS.
“I enjoyed the assembly. I loved it actually. I just love seeing black culture in it and that really stood out to me because we don’t really talk much about black culture here,” said Josiah Frank, a black M-PHS freshman.
Staff members also said that students of color appreciated the assembly.
“I talked to some students of color and asked what was their experience, and a black girl said she ‘felt great having somebody who looks like me talking to me, but all my friends thought it was racist,’” said Dana Steele, a M-PHS teacher.
However, others objected to the some of the content of the assembly.
Local parent and Arlington Police Officer Mark Wilde said he didn’t object to the performance, but did object to the political message.
“The message I heard was it turned into an assembly about Black Lives Matter, and I don’t believe that has a place here,” he said.
Local activists at the meeting said that the assembly was an appropriate time to highlight modern black activism, as King himself often criticized police brutality and was largely disliked during his time.
“If Martin Luther King was alive today they would say the things about him that they do about [Colin] Kaepernick [activist and former NFL player],” said Irvin Enriquez, a Latino community member.
“None of the kids were on stage saying ‘white people suck,’ they were telling their story,” said Ivanna Garza, a Hispanic student and member of the M-PHS ASB leadership.
Activists at the meeting said that they don’t think all cops are bad either.
“I would feel safe around you [Mark Wilde] personally. I’ve met you, I know you,” said Riall Johnson, a local black civil rights activist.
“I have no doubt that you don’t feel that way [racist], but the reality is there are officers that do, and it only takes one to affect thousands of people, and until there’s zero we’re going to have to fight to fix it,” he said.
The district responded to complaints about the assembly with a letter that implied it wasn’t right to show Black Lives Matter at a Martin Luther King Jr. assembly.
“We could have done a better job of researching the group before granting them access to the Marysville-Pilchuck HS student body. We have shared our feedback with the principal at Mariner and have elected to not have the group back in the future,” the letter said.
Officials at the meeting said the letter was a mistake.
“I didn’t write the letter, it crossed my desk. And I’ll be straightforward, I didn’t read it carefully and I read it through a lens of white privilege,” said Marysville Superintendent Jason Thompson.
Garza appreciated the recognition of the role race played in the decision process.
“As a white-passing Mexican [a Mexican person who can be mistaken for a white person] I know that white privilege is real, so thank you for acknowledging that,” she said.
Parents of color said they didn’t understand why the letter was necessary and were upset with the messaging.
“When I received the email from Mr. Rose, my soul was disturbed,” said Julien.
“I was shocked we were having a meeting because people were upset we had an assembly with Black Lives Matter,” said Eliza Davis, a Tulalip Tribal member, Marysville graduate and local parent.
Deborah Parker, the district’s director of equity, diversity and Indian education and a Tulalip Tribal member, said that local schools still have a lot of work to do.
“I know our students of color carry a lot of pain here, and that’s a big reason I took this position a year ago because I want to see that change,” she said.
Garza said she has experienced problems because of other students' reaction to her heritage.
“Last year I ran for ASB president and in part of my speech I spoke Spanish, because my culture means a lot to me and I wanted to reach the ears of those that don’t understand English,” she said.
“After the assembly, I remember multiple times I would be walking and get shoved and told to ‘go back to Mexico’ and it’s like ‘what? I grew up here, I was born here,’” she said.
The district outlined plans for the next two years and beyond at the meeting as well, including plans for additional listening sessions and community forums, staff training and work toward creating an equitable environment.