Walkout Over Response to Racism Incident Rocks Walls Community
Michael Whitaker (‘23), center, gestures while speaking to walkout participants / Credits: Tess Buckley
Black Student Union (BSU) leaders led a student walkout on March 28 during second period protesting the Walls administration’s response to a recent offensive and racially charged incident.
The week before the walkout, an offensive video was posted on an Instagram account affiliated with a Walls student group. In the video, a Black student was seen dancing with the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” which is associated with African American enslavement, overlaid. The student was not aware the song would be added and asked that the video be deleted; the account manager quickly did so.
Upon learning of the incident, administrators determined that the actions of the students responsible for the post constituted a tier three offense under Title V Chapter 25 of the D.C. Municipal Regulations and took disciplinary action accordingly. They did not immediately inform the school community that action had been taken.
The involved students’ identities are protected and details about the consequences they faced cannot be disclosed under the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Many students were left unsatisfied with administration’s response to the incident. BSU leaders Michael Whitaker (‘23), Grace Kao (‘23), Aniyha Brown (‘24) and Niyah Sapp (‘24) felt that administration had not justly punished the offending students and organized a walkout to advocate for harsher consequences.
“The students who posted the video ... did not receive a punishment that we think suitable for their highly offensive actions,” Whitaker said in an interview before the walkout. “Had this been a Black student doing something dis- criminatory against another group, the consequences would’ve been brutal.”
The four BSU leaders publicized the walkout on Instagram the evening before, on March 27. But the message did not reach everyone — many students were unaware of the protest until people began to leave class.
The walkout was planned on social media in large part because it was not school-sanctioned. Although the leaders were all BSU members, not all BSU students participated in the walkout. The BSU faculty sponsor, William Jones, was also uninvolved in the protest.
During the walkout, students walked through the halls, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, we will not be made a joke.” Around 75 walkout participants gathered in front of the administration office while Whitaker, Kao, Brown and Sapp gave speeches.
Kao discussed the context of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” to “educate the community about our his- tory,” she said.
In his speech, Whitaker said, “I feel disgusted ... with the administration’s blatant disregard,” calling for stricter punishment.
Jobari Shelton (‘23), a BSU member, echoed this sentiment, saying, “I was shocked by the incident, but I was honestly even more shocked by ... the punishment.”
However, the Walls administration said it has no choice in specific disciplinary decisions. Instead, Chapter 25 outlines what punishments must be given for various tiers of offenses. Administrators also cannot disclose those punishments to other students.
Ms. Grant also said that the protest leaders were meant to meet with administration before the protest, but they walked out. Had they come, she said, they would have heard that “punishments aren’t based on the color of your skin ... but the tier of the offense” as dictated by Chapter 25.
The speeches also protested offenses beyond the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” incident, calling out unequal treatment of Black students at Walls.
“Black students have been repeatedly singled out by our own admin who are supposed to make us feel comfortable with comments about the way we act, dress, and look,” Kao said. “We feel less loved.”
Samiyah Muse (‘25), a member of BSU, was protesting “Black students in this school being given unfair punishments compared to the other students,” she said. “The administration picks us out, calling us fast because of the clothes we wear ... ‘out of love,’ but really it feels like they are just picking on us.”
BSU member Simone Franks (‘23) concurred: “I have had comments made about my attire, my clothing, my attitude ... students who have the same clothes I have on, who act the same way I do, and those comments aren’t being made.”
However, school administrators denied any unequal treatment, at least on their part. In fact, they said the dress code is extremely lenient and almost never enforced.
Assistant Principal LaToya Grant said that “we are not an unfair administration” and that “we have no dress code.” Regarding students’ claims of unequal treatment and dress code violations, she said, “That’s a lie. Your clothes are not our business.”
On March 29, the day following the walk-out, Principal Sylvia Isaac said in an email to the school community that the “administration team is now addressing the situation with student leaders and the faculty to uphold our responsibility to educate students about issues around racism, microaggressions, gender-gender identity, and discrimination.”
Later that week, administrators including Ms. Isaac and Assistant Principal Jennifer Tully spoke to students in classes about the incident and actions that had been taken in response.