Making Voices Heard

Students gather to protest discriminatory bathroom graffiti


Mikaela Snitzer

Students spent the day voicing their frustrations and stories of discrimination. “I appreciate everyone who came and walked with us, and listened to me and everyone else who spoke their mind,” Xavier Cook (12) said. “I’m proud of everyone who spoke, and I thank everyone who stands with Black lives.”

Emma Li, Features Editor

On Sept. 23, students walked out to the administrative center parking lot during third block to protest the racist, xenophobic, and discriminatory messages graffittied upon multiple boys’ restrooms at Parkway Central High School. These messages were found on Sept. 22 in restrooms both at Central and North High. Students for Progressive Change, along with seniors in the Class of 2022, organized the walkout as a criticism for not passing a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination drafted last school year. 

“I shouldn’t be out here,” Shayneisha Allen (10) said. “I should be in there getting my education, but I have to sit there and be in fear of what’s going to happen to me in this school. I should be in that school getting my education but I’m not. So how’s it going to change?”

Photos circulated across social media following the incident. The defacing of public property with messages of hate targeting multiple groups spread rapidly, and struck fear into some, but simply disappointment for others.

“The first picture I saw was, ‘I hope all Black people die,’” Peyton Silas (12) said. “That was just so scary cause I’m Black, and someone wants us to die. It wasn’t really shocking, but it just hurt and it’s just stupid and it’s embarrassing.”

Over the course of the senior class’s high school experience, a racially-motivated hate crime occurs nearly each year, so often that it is not a question of if it will happen, but when. The only ambiguity is within lasting school policy changes.

“I just hope that something happens,” Silas said. “I feel like the senior class, class of 2022, we’re doing the best we can. And I hope the future classes do what they can do, but it’s not gonna stop. I feel like it’s gonna keep happening.” 

The organization of the protest was simple yet effective. 

“Well a group of my friends, when we heard about it, weren’t surprised,” Nnenna Okpara (12) said. “We’re all used to it, but this is unacceptable, and this can’t keep happening. So we said we’re gonna walk out Thursday during third hour, so we spread the word, ‘blackout’ and it just happened. This is a school community for everyone to be loved here, but we don’t feel that way.”

The efficiency of organization was not lost on underclassmen. 

“And it’s gotten to the point that in my section in marching band, seniors are putting in the group chat how this works,” Rachel Land (10) said. “When we go outside, what happens when we go outside, what you need to wear, what you need to do. This should happen so rarely that when it does happen, no one knows how to deal with it.”

Although the protest started with the seniors, multiple students of all backgrounds voiced their opinions throughout the approximately four hour long walkout. Megaphones, and later handheld microphones with a wireless speaker amplified students’ voices who were empowered to voice their concerns. Students told their stories of discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, and mental health to the crowd that gathered outside the district administration building, while those in the back watched from others’ Instagram lives.

“Hearing all these stories of people who have been going through all this, this is not okay,” Ava O’Bryan (9) said.

Words have power, and with the aid of the internet, have irretrievable force. 

“I felt really bad,” Nishika Singh (10) said. “I’m not Black, I’m Indian, and I felt that. It hurt me very deeply and personally because I know people who have been hurt by the racial slurs that were written, and it’s not right. This happens a lot and I feel like now there should be something done.”

Singh later went up to speak out about her experiences with loneliness due to harmful stereotyping, along with many others. The intensity of the crowd noticeably increased as speakers became more bold with the microphones, yet others were still quietly sad.

“It hurts to see people hurting,” Madison Abrams (10) said.

Yet others were silent for different reasons. 

“I am white, so I feel like I shouldn’t be saying that much,” Kyle McCluskey (10) said. “I should be using my voice because I have one in this circumstance, but I feel like I also shouldn’t be using it because it’s not my area to talk about. I’m here to add to the people to show that I care. It’s not personal, just skipping school. It’s aggravating when people do that. It diminishes what this means.” 

While some spoke up, others took the time to reflect and listen. 

“I really wasn’t that affected,” junior Axavier Aridge said. “I’m kinda desentized to this kind of stuff. It doesn’t really pull my heartstrings. But just because it doesn’t affect me, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t affect anybody else. You have a right to be offended by whatever offends you, and what’s going on here today is a really good thing. It shows that people still care about this kind of stuff.”

Onlookers were also looking towards the future, but beyond policy changes. 

“This reminded me of a discussion we had in English not that long ago, and I wrote a question that kind of created a moment of pause,” Devan Smith (11) said. “The question reads, ‘how do we look into the starry eyes of young people of marginalized groups that shall precede us, and describe unto them the reality of the deep hopelessness intrinsic to their lives without making life itself seem a pointless and cruel endeavor?’ And it’s a tough question. But more than anything, I realize that being scared of the toughness of that question is what inspires events like this. It’s a question that prompts us to pause, and certainly a question that has fearful implications but it’s one that I think we ought to answer. Either we must be told the way to do this to our children, or we must make it so that it doesn’t happen to our children. There’s been a lot of pain, perhaps there’ll be more pain in the future, but I believe that it’s something we can do.” 

Caring for each other was a large motivating factor for attending the protest. The future may be uncertain, but it is the fuel for change.

“I hope for the people that come after me, that have to go through the same school, don’t have to experience the same things that I did,” Nya Anderson-Pittman (11) said.

Fears of the future lead to the passion that fuels effective change, which comes in the form of students creating new policies against discrimination.

“I was told last August it would be passed by May,” Avery Adams (12) said. “It’s September.”

Unfortunately, Parkway is large and well known, and therefore difficult to change. 

“There’s lot of procedures, and policies, and even those that dictate how to change policy,” counselor Lelia Flagg said. “There’s procedures for that, there’s a committee for that, you have to take it to this person. And so what I’m encouraged about is I see students who are willing to engage in that right now. So, we have a group of students that are meeting after school to prepare some talking points to take to the assistant superintendent, for the deputy superintendent, to then take to the Board of Education. Lasting change will come from policy changes. Policy changes, unfortunately, in a big system like this, do not come about very quickly.”

Many agree that change comes from authority figures. 

“We’re all just kids,” Izzy Herberger (10) said. “The fact that we have to be doing this because the adults in our lives aren’t doing this, is so sad. The fact that we have to stand up for ourselves, and the adults aren’t standing up for the kids is not okay.”

The irony of Central’s status at a National School of Character is not lost on the students. To qualify, the school must embody the 11 Principles listed by the organization. These principles guide school culture, student engagement, student achievement, teacher morale, ethics, and more.  

“We’re a National School of Character until someone writes slurs on the bathroom walls and posts them on social media,” Lucas Borchardt (11) said. “It feels like a coverup of how much we can force this idea of how great we are and how wonderful our environment is, while we turn around and see this happen every single year. We’re a national school of character, and yet people are still judged, not by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin. We’re a national school of character, and as much as Parkway would like to hide behind that title, it’s time that we step up and we earn it.”

Although most students called for immediate action against the perpetrator, a few hoped they would learn just as the other listeners.

“I hope that the person or people responsible for this learns from what they did, and will be able to do better with their lives, and what they have done and affected everybody right now,” Alan Ho (11) said. 

However, the majority of the speakers demanded a change in students’ roles in school as listeners, rather than masters of their own fate. 

  “If you’re somebody who’s part of any marginalized identity, know that it’s your school,” Ethan Winograd (12) said. “Take the power back.”

Students using the power that they have attracted the attention of multiple news sites, and eventually, a candidate running for one of Missouri’s Senate seats in August of 2022. Spencer Toder is a Democratic candidate who grew up in St. Louis. Toder arrived while speaking students gathered near the administration building at the stairs, handing out water and snacks in defiance of teachers marking them absent. However, after the events of that day and the following Monday, administration decided to excuse all absences. 

“You are the reason that I am running,” Toder said. “I am so sick and tired of us dealing with the same problems now that we were dealing with when I was your age. 20 years ago I was standing like you are now, at my school, complaining about the same things. You guys will be the future and you will make the change that we need. Do that, stay strong.”

Multiple counselors were outside that day to support students in a challenging time. Paul Hussmann has been at Central for seven years, with a similar incident each year. 

“I don’t think we’ve done enough,” Hussmann said. “We haven’t done enough for you all as students. It’s sad, I’m angry, I feel terrible for the kids that this is an environment where they’re supposed to feel safe, and be able to learn, expand, and grow, and this just hinders that.”

Multiple protesters were concerned that the person who wrote the slurs, or people who secretly agreed with the words written, were at the protest. There were several instances when students called for those people to go back to class, but some adults who came to support their children in the protest thought differently.

“Kids are taught,” Chastity Saunders, Jayden Saunders’s mom, said. “They live with what they’re taught. Until we get change in the hearts of some, it won’t matter.”

Others agree that change comes from within, and fuels the conflicting emotions of that day.

“I want people to see my friends how I see them: genuinely really good people who I want to spend time with, not somebody they judge,” Stuart Tournier (11) said.

After hours of standing outside, listening to numerous speeches and statements filled with every emotion, there was a lot to take home.

“You’re here today,” Adams said. “You put in the work after today. Today’s not the end, today’s the beginning.”

Whether the day was successful or not is up to interpretation.

“I appreciate everyone who came, walked with us, and listened to me and everyone else who spoke their mind,” Xavier Cook (12) said. “I’m proud of everyone who spoke their mind, and I thank everyone who stands with Black lives.”

Whether the perpetrator’s goal was to strike fear, skip school, or any number of other reasons, the unity that was demonstrated that day would mark the attempt unsuccessful. In less than a week after the day’s proceedings, a Black student came forward to confess to the misdemeanor after several questionings.

“I am African American and I’m pretty proud of that,” Camree Harrison (12) said.