Photo provided by Washington High School.
On July 4th, 2020, a Mission San Jose High School alumnus published an online open letter detailing an alleged long-standing pattern of mistreatment on the part of MSJ and argued that Mission’s staff and administration perpetuated a culture of “racism, favoritism, and abuse.” Ankush Swarnakar’s article, almost six thousand words long, described troubling memories that he had been debating about sharing for almost two years.
In his post, Swarnakar (who graduated in 2018 and went on to attend Stanford University) included numerous anecdotes of discrimination, explained what he thought were the underlying problems at Mission, and ended with a call to action which he hoped would facilitate a meaningful discussion among the Mission community. Since then, Washington students have also shared their own experiences and have spoken up about what they claim is negligence by our school’s administration. This movement has highlighted systemic educational issues that have rarely been discussed publicly, has urged schools to reflect on their past behavior, and has created new avenues for improvement.
From descriptions of some teachers making racist and homophobic comments to others explicitly endorsing ableist policies and flipping over tables, Swarnakar’s piece makes it clear that there is a grave problem at Mission. An Instagram account with almost two thousand followers, @msj.stories, offered a way for students to anonymously come forward and share their experiences with Mission staff. An anti-racism petition with more than a thousand signatures articulated concrete actions the district should take, such as diversifying new hires. Two weeks after the initial letter was published, Mission’s Associated Student Body held the first of two community panels discussing mental health, microaggressions, and solutions to take Mission forward.
On the contrary, the staff at Washington has previously made efforts to create a positive learning environment and is trying to address these new concerns. In an interview, Washington’s Principal Bob Moran stated that the most important thing in these situations is that students “bring it to an adult, preferably an administrator.” Mr. Moran signaled that students or parents could LoopMail or call an Assistant Principal to have these incidents investigated and addressed. And while it was reiterated that disciplinary action taken against teachers after these types of events will always be private, as required by contracts between the school and the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association, he admitted that there has to be “some sort of remedy where students are aware that some measure of acknowledgment [by the administration] took place.” Finally, he highlighted the work of Assistant Principals, saying that while teaching can be hard, an “extraordinary number of adults on this campus care for kids.”
Additionally, in a joint effort between Washington’s ASB and school staff, a Student Support Panel was held where anonymous reports were discussed and solutions brainstormed. According to Washington’s ASB President Abi Shiva, the panel gave “an outlet to share [negative] stories” and included “teachers, administrators, Board of Education members, counselors, and ASB officers.” An experience of political discrimination posed a question regarding where Washington stands on controversial problems such as LGBTQ+ equality. One teacher brought up that to other people, respecting gender pronouns could become “a political issue.” However, in a later interview, Mr. Moran clarified that the school views respecting someone’s gender pronouns as “a basic human right” and would enforce policies accordingly. Another recurring theme was the premise of unconscious bias: that teachers were not aware they had “crossed a line,” and that they needed to attend events such as the panel to become informed. For reference, an example of unconscious bias would be saying “You’re Muslim? But you don’t wear a hijab.” An example of conscious bias would be saying “I think all Muslims are terrorists.” In terms of conscious bias though, the administration’s stance started to become less clear. Mr. Moran stated, “I can’t say what is going to happen unless I know the specific incident” and that conscious bias needs to be “provable for incidents to be discussed with the employee.”
Student responses to the panel and additional events have been mixed. While many appreciated the in-depth discussions, some felt there were still some questions left unanswered. Through interviews, it became clear that some students were disappointed that throughout the panel “unconscious bias” was used to justify a wide variety of incidents. They additionally expressed dislike for specific comments made during the panel, such as the idea that disciplinary efforts towards teachers have to be kept private. Some shared experiences of reporting incidents to administration and “being told it was supposedly handled, and then watching those same teachers commit the same abuses again.” Many were unclear on what the process was to report a staff member, and some students did not feel comfortable going to the office and having their identity revealed. Junior Masooma Ali wrote a letter in September to Washington staff outlining concerns she had over the upcoming distance-learning school year, such as how some students “needed to help their younger siblings learn during the day.” She stated how many of these problems go “under the bus, and are not really talked about.” She pointed out how the Student Support Panel “needed to bring in more marginalized voices to accurately represent Washington.” She highlighted how there was no guarantee for action, and that possible solutions that were discussed “may never actually be implemented.”
A recurring theme seen in many interviews with Washington students was what they called a “refusal to change.” They emphasized the evidence of repeated mistreatment: that even after multiple students reported a staff member for similar behaviors, nothing changed. They described how microaggressions, such as casual misogynistic or racist comments, were brushed aside as they did not seem important enough. Mirghani described how several times, she had to work “extra hard just to prove these issues important [to school staff].” In an interview, an alumnus from the Washington Class of 2009 (who prefers to remain anonymous) stated how their teachers were biased and racist towards immigrant students, and how their complaints against these teachers went unanswered. Similar experiences were shared by alumni of more recent classes as well.
As Washington looks to the future, students hope that frank community discussions will lead to concrete, feasible solutions. Already, school staff and administration have scheduled meetings with student leaders who are dedicated to improving their school’s learning environment. Both Ali and Mirghani are “optimistic and grateful for the direction that [the school] is going in.” Mr. Moran indicated an interest in following up with students who reported their experiences to the Student Support Panel and having a permanent form in place for complaints in the future. However, students understand that there is still a long road ahead. Many simply wish that students and staff will continue to push for action even after this topic of discussion is not considered “trending” anymore. They hope that through discussions and petitions the school will become aware of its decade-long “refusal to change.” They hope that the issues affecting them currently do not continue to affect future Washington students.
They hope for change.
The Hatchet strongly encourages students (or parents of students) who have gone through incidents similar to those mentioned in this article to contact their assistant principal or counselor for further guidance. The first step to change begins with you.