Racist sign triggers soul-searching at Juneau high school

FORUM: Hundreds meet to find solutions after student flashes derogatory sign.

The Associated Press

(Published: February 7, 2004)

JUNEAU -- A Juneau high school student has been suspended for holding up a derogatory hand-lettered sign about Alaska Natives while he was riding in a school bus.

The Jan. 27 incident sparked concerns about a generations-long pattern of racism at Juneau-Douglas High School. Several hundred people attended a forum Thursday to prepare a list of proposed solutions for the Juneau School District.

"If you are the subject of racism, then that becomes the lens through which you filter other situations," said teacher Laury Scandling, who works with potential dropouts.

The suspended student, whose name has not been released, is part Native, but that doesn't negate the seriousness of racial incidents at the high school, Scandling said.

Some Native students say they've been spit on or pushed against the wall in halls. Teachers report seeing the initials KAN, which stand for Kids Against Natives, written on students' desks.

A survey of Juneau-Douglas High School students two years ago about the perceived social status of student groups ranked Natives at the bottom, under gays and lesbians, Scandling said.

At Thursday's forum, several Native students said they were afraid to walk the halls alone because they face physical or verbal intimidation. Some students said teachers don't always intervene when students harass other students.

"We have taken 20 steps backwards," Juneau resident Ken Perkins told the audience. "This is the 21st century. This should have been eradicated long ago."

The bus incident also sparked a school-community meeting Tuesday. It attracted about 100 people, including students, staff, parents, Juneau School Board members and Alaska Native leaders.

Some who attended the meeting suggested that the school train a staff member to investigate racial incidents.

Some said the disproportionate rate of Native dropouts is related, for some students, to a racially charged and unwelcoming atmosphere.

Yvonne Willis, a junior, was one of several students who saw the offensive sign. She reported it to school officials.

"I felt kind of angry because I didn't know this person," Willis told the Juneau Empire. "They didn't know how we are. I just felt mad and angry. I just wanted to go up to them and ask, 'Why are you saying this stuff?' "

Assistant principal Kathryn Milliron said the student, a boy, was suspended for 10 days, the maximum period under the School District's discipline grid for such offenses.

She said the district has a strong policy against any kind of harassment, including racial slurs, and against actions that intimidate students or make them feel unsafe.

Milliron said the suspended student is remorseful and would like to meet in a mediation with the students who saw the sign.

For Native adults, the concerns are not new. Juneau Assembly member Randy Wanamaker, who attended the high school during the early 1960s, said he faced harassment but it was "easy to tolerate and work around" because the building wasn't crowded.

"The overcrowding (now) exacerbates it quite a bit," he said.

Copyright 2004 The Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)