By Arielle Robinson
A multiracial group of mostly Campbell High School students nearly filled the room at the Cobb County Board of Education’s evening session Thursday in a silent protest to demand stricter discipline for racism and other bigoted actions.
The group of students wore all black clothes as they quietly streamed into the meeting during the public comment portion.
Most of them took a seat in the crowd and some lined against the walls while holding signs. Seated students stood, held up signs, and remained quiet while four Black Campbell High students spoke during public comment.
Specifically, the students want the school district to modify two sections of its code of conduct.
Discipline for harassment and bullying, section L1, should be met with a minimum of 10 days out of school suspension, the students say.
The high schoolers say Cobb’s school system often lets racist actions go unaccounted for, or when there is some form of accountability, the punishment is too lenient.
They also want section G3, about disrespectful conduct, to include students in addition to the existent language about district personnel or other adults on school property.
That section says, “A student shall not use profane, obscene, or abusive language (written or oral) or gestures toward District personnel or other adults on school property or at school sponsored events.”
Campbell High senior Kezia Kennedy said recent racist social media comments from students who attend the Smyrna high school inspired the group to look into the code of conduct and advocate for change.
Students say that there have been far too many instances of racism at school and around the district and the school board must take action to show they are serious about ending racism and overall bigotry within the district.
“We are choosing to do a silent protest because we feel we have talked enough, with no results from the board,” Kennedy said before the protest.
During public comment, Kennedy linked hateful acts students have committed to past decisions the board has made, including bans on Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project and a failure to adequately address anti-Semitism.
“We’ve seen the empty promises made in the anti-Semitism and racial resolution, the cancellation of programs like [the Anti-Defamation League’s] ‘No Place for Hate’ with no explanation, and the refusal to listen to suggestions from trained professionals who suggest the implementations of impactful policies,” Kennedy said.
“And on top of all of this, the county has found a scapegoat in the ambiguity of Critical Race Theory. The discussions about the so-called ‘dangers’ of CRT have taken away from what Cobb County students really need — an education on right and wrong,” Kennedy also said. “Somehow, we have let our students slip through the cracks, thinking that bigotry and discrimination are fine so long as whoever says it is carrying a diploma alongside it. I urge every board member to take a look at their priorities and decide what is more important — creating thoughtful and educated students, or ones that really understand subjects like math and English, but not how to respect one another.”
Kennedy said the district must show that it stands against racism, homophobia, sexism, and any and all forms of discrimination.
Campbell senior and student body president Radiya Ajibade said during public comment that she and her fellow peers of color have been exposed to the disadvantages of being people of color in the United States.
She said that as a first-generation Nigerian-American, the people who raised her made sure she was taught how being a Black woman in this country “would work against me.”
“Throughout my years at Campbell High School, those teachings have served me as a way of life in order to survive not only academically but also socially,” Ajibade said. “In my four years, there have been concerning comments and instances in regard to race with slurs and blackface from some of my white counterparts, but nothing as heinous as what was displayed in the last two weeks.
“The students of color at Campbell High School and throughout Cobb County have been dismissed for too long,” she said. “Watching our other students confidently use racial slurs and methods of discrimination that parallel those of the early 20th century in America is unacceptable. The student body as a collective no longer feels comfortable in the presence of students who can still do things like this in 2022. As the board itself explicitly states in its anti-Semitism and racial resolution from October 14, 2021, ‘forms of hate have no place in our county.’”
Ajibade said that although the board has stated in its resolution that it will take proactive steps to address hatred, it has not outlined a specific strategy on how it will do so.
The students aim to hold the school board accountable.
“We are requesting a written response within 30 days outlining the proactive steps against anti-Semitism, racism, and hate mentioned in the resolution,” Ajibade said.
Campbell senior Tate Rasheed said that while school is supposed to be a place for learning and growth, some of his memories have been clouded by prejudice from peers.
He said that many Campbell and Cobb students were able to pinpoint at least one example of prejudice from each year they were in high school.
“By listening to our words but not taking action, the school board itself has become an organization which protects the perpetrators instead of those being targeted, those who truly need defense,” Rasheed said. “It is sad and disheartening to students in this county to continuously keep speaking out about this for ourselves as if we are alone, all because the adults in power won’t implement real change for students who are being targeted by racism and hate speech. Until our voices are acknowledged and the school board implements real change, we will continue to speak.”
Campbell junior Marli English said students cannot tolerate discrimination from classmates anymore and the board has an opportunity to change.
“We request a written response within 30 days explicitly stating what the board and county plan to do to correct the issues we are facing,” English said. “I implore you all not to only consider these changes but to take immediate action. And to my board members — I genuinely request that you see us not just as disruptors or protesters but as students and constituents of your counties who are requesting and demanding change.”
Former Cobb school counselor and anti-racist activist Jennifer Susko, who resigned in protest against racism in the district last year, also showed support for students through speaking to the board.
“For years, I told you we should deal with these issues through preventative, anti-bias, anti-racist educational programming and pedagogy so all students feel affirmed and welcomed and so they’re equipped with the tools to discuss race and difference, to learn empathy and combat racism — then we may not get to this reactive place where harsher punishment is necessary,” Susko said. “Instances of racism continue to arise in Cobb because there is a systemic problem. In absence of your willingness to admit that, you still must address the symptoms of the problem, even while you ignore its root cause.
“I’ve spoken often about racism’s dangerous consequences to student mental health, and the trauma of these students isn’t [something] with no evidence or something you can claim a radical school counselor is making up,” Susko said. “The students dealing with racism and bigotry that some of you claim doesn’t exist are right here. If you need more motivation to act on their demands, pretend they’re the same people you moved so quickly to help with the CRT ban. Think back to your anti-racism resolution. Keep that same energy to respond immediately when Black and brown and other marginalized students self-advocate about the problem your resolution intends to solve.”
There was a loud round of applause and cheers among the students after each person spoke. Quickly after, everyone returned to silently holding up signs.
Students held signs that said “change the code,” “we demand change,” and “#notyourword.”
When asked about the latter phrase’s meaning, Kennedy said, “It basically arose from students who were saying slurs towards people of color, queer people, women, and we wanted to say that these are not their words to say and it’s not okay for them to say them. We want them to understand that we won’t take it anymore.”
Ajibade said that some students from surrounding Cobb high schools also came to the silent protest.
The Black Student Association at Campbell High along with the school’s Minority Caucus organized the demonstration.
Ajibade is co-president of the BSA.
Ajibade said the BSA is “essentially a safe space for Black students, but we welcome all students of color. We even welcome white people. Essentially, we just kind of talk about culture and when it comes to Black culture, talking about issues our community faces. When we talk about issues, we kind of don’t want it to be a bashing thing. We try to make it to where we can actually do something about it. This is one of those things.”
Kennedy and Ajibade co-founded the Minority Caucus in their junior years going into their senior years.
About it, Kennedy said, “We wanted to create an environment where we foster better relations between students of color and students who are white,” Kennedy said. “Basically we wanted to just improve our school and improve the relations between students and also make students who felt like they couldn’t thrive in our school have a space and have people that they can come to.”
The duo had originally planned to attend school board meetings to observe how they worked when they were sophomores but that did not work out due to the initial COVID-19 outbreak.
They have been watching online streams of meetings in preparation for Thursday night’s protest.
“We wanted to come now and to ensure that we would establish a history of us continuing to come,” Kennedy said.
The pair said they emailed a few school board members and Charisse Davis and Leroy “Tre” Hutchins offered their support for the students.
Thursday, Hutchins along with board member Dr. Jaha Howard showed up before and after the protest to express solidarity with the demonstrators.
The three Black Democrats have a history of supporting students and local advocates who have spoken out against bigotry at board meetings. They have supported putting items related to racism on board agendas in the past.
The GOP majority, all of them white men, have effectively silenced the Democrats’ agendas, as they passed a rule in 2020 stating there must be a four-person majority to get an item on the agenda.
Kennedy and Ajibade said students will become familiar faces at board meetings if the school board continues not to take action.
“We’ve seen that in the past, people have come to the board and asked for things and the board has not done anything and hasn’t taken any action,” Kennedy said. “If that happens again, we will be here. We’ll be writing letters. I was calling three of the board members yesterday and I’ll do that again. And we’ll go through it again.”
Ajibade deeply hopes that the school board will listen to the students.
“But if they don’t, well, we’re more than happy to come back,” Ajibade said. “And we’ll keep coming back.”
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.