Student activism ramps up in wake of school graffiti incident

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Idan Lerner, Senior, Parkway Central High School

On Sept. 22, an unidentified student at Parkway Central High School wrote racist graffiti on the walls of a school bathroom. The following day, students organized a walkout in protest.

The walkout started with about 1,000 students and lasted for four hours. A few days later, a rumor spread that someone had threatened to commit a school shooting the next day.

Although there was no threat, many students did not come to school that day. At some point the next week, the student responsible for writing the graffiti was found, and the district superintendent sent an email to the Parkway community.

The school has seemingly moved on, but some students feel that not enough has changed, so they have taken it upon themselves to be catalysts for progress.

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The graffiti itself had a negative impact on students. Alyssa Smith, a senior at Parkway Central and congregant of Congregation B’nai Amoona, said, “I was frustrated when I learned what happened. It’s hard to see. After all these years, we still have issues with racism.”

Avery Adams, another senior, added, “It’s very exhausting. It feels like you’re not safe at school, and it’s worse for students of color and especially African Americans.”

The walkout had a mixed effect on people. For some, it was a healing moment, a way for the student body to come together in support.

“After the walkout, people were inspired to take action,” Smith said. “It gave me hope to see that so many people stood for the greater good of all students.”

On the other hand, unfavorable outcomes were also exposed by students during the walkout.

“Racist events have happened five years in a row,” Adams said. “The recurrence of these incidents is the main problem.”

Students also noted that school administrators had varying reactions to the incident as well as other similar ones in the past.

“Our principal was at the walkout, listening to students, and still continues to meet with them about their concerns,” Smith said. “He values our opinions and wants things to change.”

In contrast, the superintendent of Parkway was “out of the district” the day of the walkout. Therefore, many Central students place more blame on district administrators instead of those working at the school.

“The district should have acted the first time [there was an incident], but the school-level administrators did everything they could,” Adams said. “The problem is with our school board, superintendent and the culture at the school.”

Eventually, the superintendent sent an email about the incident, and he pointed out the student responsible for the graffiti was not white. Students took issue with the inclusion of this detail.

“The superintendent was trying to push the belief that it’s not a big deal because the student wasn’t white,” senior Katie Tien said. “But it is still a big deal.”

Smith said: “He tried to deflect criticism toward the district. Nonwhite can include other races that still shouldn’t be racist against African Americans. Even if it was a Black student, that doesn’t make it OK, either.”

The superintendent’s email also compared the graffiti in the bathroom to people stealing bathroom appliances as a part of the “Devious Lick” challenge, another point of contention with students. (Devious Lick is a viral theme on TikTok that encourages students to steal or vandalize school property and post a video of the action on TikTok.)

“[I think] the district wanted the news to focus on something other than their own responsibility,” Adams said.

Nevertheless, many news articles still focused on the race aspect. Students found multiple local and national articles, and even one from the United Kingdom, that all spent more time providing examples of Black students writing racist messages than describing the real systemic problems that Parkway Central students continue to struggle with.

“The news made the story [about the fact] that a Black student did this to get attention, and once the story [got] out, it [was] impossible to turn,” Adams said.

Partially due to the backlash of the incident, students have started to notice positive changes after all the negativity.

“Administration is also working more openly with students now because they realize how we feel,” Smith said.

Adams said, “The district is trying to make changes, slowly, but they need to be doing more.”

Now, almost two months since the vandalism, students are taking significant charge in promoting progress by establishing social action clubs. These clubs have gained a lot of popularity recently. Tien is the president of Project Help, one such club.

“Project Help works to make the community a better place through community service and learning opportunities,” she said.

Adams leads Students for Progressive Change (SPC).

“SPC exists to give students a place to have a voice,” Adams said, explaining that SPC is working to resolve the problems of the past by implementing policies and educating other students on issues of race and similar topics. It also strives to support students who are struggling and give them a space to be comfortable.

Although conversations regarding social justice issues at Parkway Central have been prominent recently, a lot of progress needs to be made in the school, and students will continue to assume the role of driving that progress.