About 50 students walked out of Kamiakin High classes Friday afternoon and rallied in front of the school upset over allegations of racism.
The bad feelings began building after some Kamiakin students started chanting “Build the Wall” during last weekend’s football game, prompting some to take concerns to this week’s school board meeting.
The theme for the student body spirit section on Oct. 5 was the “United States of America” and students showed up to cheer for their Braves wearing red, white and blue.
One student brought a “Make America Great Again” flag.
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Kamiakin senior Cielo Castor, who was at the game taking photos for the yearbook, said the student had a right to bring the flag. But when students started chanting “Build the Wall,” she told him he needed to put a stop to it.
The student with the flag encouraged the cheerleaders to join in, Castor said. The cheerleaders did not start chanting and an adult with the cheerleaders told the student he should stop, Castor said.
The chanting did not stop then, Castor said, but eventually the flag was folded up.
Hard feelings escalated when a photo of the Make America Great Again flag was posted to a Run Kano-themed Instagram social media account. It was not clear if that’s a school sanctioned account. Run Kano is a Kamiakin student spirit slogan.
Castor was upset enough to attend a Kennewick School District Board meeting Wednesday night, despite being “super, super scared” to address a meeting that drew a large crowd because of para-educator negotiations.
She told the board that it was not OK for students to chant “Build the Wall” and for school leaders to apparently take no action to stop it. Just over 27 percent of the high school’s students are Hispanic.
She said it looked like the school condoned the behavior.
Hispanic students at Kamiakin told her that seeing the Instagram post made them feel like they were not accepted at the high school. It built on harassing comments previously made to Hispanic students, she said.
Another student, who Castor did not know, also came to the board meeting to talk about what happened at the game, she said.
The second student shared the racial slurs she had been called and about her parents’ concerns about her attending Kamiakin after her parents were at the game, Castor said.
The Herald left messages with several school board members, but the only one who spoke to the Herald, Ben Messinger, said board members had agreed not to talk to news media on behalf of the board and declined to discuss what happened at this week’s public meeting.
Superintendent Dave Bond was at the meeting but was out of town Friday and not available to comment. Minutes of the board meeting are not yet available.
Ron Williamson, the Kennewick School District assistant superintendent of secondary education, said there had been incidents at the high school during the week, but he would not discuss specifics because of concerns about keeping disciplinary issues confidential.
Students who spoke to the Herald and Williamson said students brought both Mexican and “Make America Great Again” flags to the high school this week. Make America Great Again, or MAGA, was President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
One student posted to Twitter that “kamiakin makes a kid wearing a mexican flag around his shoulders take it off for being ‘distracting’ but they let another kid walk around wearing a trump flag as a cape without repercussions!!”
Another rumor circulated that some students had urinated on a Make America Great Again flag, though the Herald could not confirm that happened.
Williamson said students were not sent home for bringing the flags to school, but again said there had been some instances in which disciplinary actions were taken that he could not discuss.
On the day after the school board meeting, Castor said she was pulled out of class to meet with the superintendent and discuss her concerns, along with the other student who spoke to the board.
The two students also agreed to meet with Kamiakin administrators, including Principal Chris Chelin and at least one representative of the athletic department.
Chelan, who did not return a phone call from the Herald, told Castor he wished that she had talked to him first about her concerns, Castor said.
She told him she believed she needed to bring it to the school board because she felt nothing was being done. Other students were upset after the game and Instagram post and worried that they would be bullied.
The lack of action by school officials seemed to send a message that racist and offensive comments would be tolerated, she said.
Among the suggestions she made to Chelan was that he go from class to class to discuss the issue with students, she said.
She was pleased to see him do that on Friday, including stopping by a class she was in, she said.
He told students that he wanted them to be comfortable coming to him with issues, including racial or other offensive comments. He also listened to comments students made about school in general, Castor said.
“I was so surprised,” Castor said. “It felt genuinely like my opinion mattered.”
Late Friday morning some students walked out of school before fourth period and others skipped their fifth and sixth period classes to join them.
About 50 students at the rally’s peak chanted “We’ll never be defeated — People united” and waved signs that said “Resist” and “We are American Too.” Two students held up the flag of Mexico.
Chelin watched the rally, but did not interfere.
Rather than take punitive action, school officials told students who skipped class to come in and talk to administrators if they were experiencing racism or other issues, Williamson said
“Tell us what created the problem,” Williamson said. “Tell us what we can do to help and make things better.”
Castor said she felt like her actions made some positive change, not to influence anyone’s political opinion, but to put out the message “Be decent human beings.”
The Kennewick School District sent the Herald a statement Friday that said the “district is committed to creating a learning environment where every student feels safe and welcome. We want our students to know that we are here to support them and available to discuss any concerns they have.”