More than 50 students gathered Dec. 18 at the entrance of Dunwoody High School before classes started to protest racism at the school that some allege has been going on for some time.
The protest that started about 7:30 a.m. was apparently sparked by a photograph that was shared on social media last week of the DHS football cheerleading squad that showed the only black cheerleader cropped out. DHS Principal Priscilla Cole told parents in an email that the crop was unintentional, and that the picture was not used in any formal setting.
Arryanna Dixon, a senior at DHS, said the demonstration was to protest more than just the photograph.
“We are protesting because there’s a serious problem with racist comments and jokes being made all the time in the hallways and classrooms and no justice is being brought to the victims,” she said.
Before Dixon could say anything else, however, DeKalb County District 1 Regional Superintendent Sherry Johnson interrupted and said no students could be interviewed. A DeKalb Schools police officer asked all people who were not students to leave the campus.
Cole, who was watching the protest, declined comment.
The rally was advertised on social media as a Black Lives Matter protest. DeKalb County School board member Stan Jester wrote about the photograph and planned protest on his blog on Dec. 17.
DHS Principal Cole sent an email to parents over the weekend acknowledging a protest was planned for Monday morning in response to “a viral picture went out that was mischaracterized which involved our football cheerleading squad and it has impacted our school community.”
Jester showed up at the protest and asked a student why she was there before he was also cut off by a school official and asked to not interview students.
“I’m curious to know if they actually understand why they’re out here,” Jester answered when asked why he was at the protest.
Jester went on to explain that he had talked to cheerleaders and their parents and learned that the black cheerleader, who was standing on the outside of the group, was cropped out when the photo was submitted to Walgreens to be cropped from a 4-by-6 to 4-by-4. The machine at Walgreens made the crop, he said, not any of the students or faculty.
“Every account I’ve heard, from cheerleaders to parents, fits that narrative,” he said.
Jester said he had not talked to the black cheerleader in the photo. “No, I would like to, but I’m concerned that would make them feel uncomfortable. I would only speak to those who want to speak out,” he said.
He did note that the DHS students were speaking out at the rally and he wanted to hear what they had to say. “I want to know what their concerns are,” he said. “Dunwoody is a very open community. We respect their thoughts.”
He added that he disagreed with them protesting the cropped photo, but that he was pleased to see it was a nonviolent protest. “I don’t agree with what they are saying, but I wanted to make sure they just weren’t blindly following a crowd.”
The subject of cheerleading and racism is not a new one. In September, five black Kennesaw State University cheerleaders came under fire after kneeling during the national anthem before a football game to protest racism and police brutality. The movement was started last year by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and has been taken up in the ensuing months by more NFL players as well as college and high school players.
KSU president Sam Olens announced this month he would be stepping down as a direct result of his decision to force cheerleaders to stay in the tunnel during the national anthem rather than have any of them kneeling on the field. Olens made the decision after receiving text messages from state Rep. Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren telling him to halt the protests.
“There is no doubt this [protest] is indicative of what’s going on socially and politically,” Jester said. “I believe minority students, especially students of color … they feel like they are being kept down [and] immigrants feel like they are being kicked out. They feel like … what’s the right word … is oppressed the right word? They feel like they aren’t being given a chance.”
Schelle Purcell, whose daughter Chanel Fairley, a sophomore, was leading the chants, attended the protest to show her daughter support. She said the protest was brought on by the black cheerleader being cropped out of a photo, but that she heard black students, including her daughter, deal regularly with racist comments.
“When you hear stories, you want to support them,” she said. “It was time to do something, to say something.”
Purcell said she and her family moved to Dunwoody last year from North Carolina and she put her daughter in Dunwoody High School because of its good reviews. But last year they had to deal with “racially motivated themes,” she said. “Students were saying things. I try not to tolerate it, but I also encourage my daughter as well as anybody to have a voice.”
She said she wrote the principal and cheerleading coach asking about the cropped photo and was told it was a mistake made by Walgreens. She said she was not convinced and her daughter and cousin decided to move ahead with the protest after they were hearing backlash from fellow students and football players.
“They were telling them, ‘What does it matter. It’s only a picture,’” Purcell said. “Well, nothing ever matters until black kids get together and take a stand against racism.”
According to the DeKalb County School District, Dunwoody High School’s demographics are 52 percent white, 27 percent Latino, 15 percent black and 6 percent Asian.
DeKalb Superintendent Stephen Green issued this statement about the protest:
“The DeKalb County School District will always support students’ rights to free speech and peaceful expression. Our role as both educators and responsible citizens is to listen to the concern driving the expression, and use that information to support our children’s intellectual and social growth.
“DCSD believes every experience can be a learning opportunity. Students at Dunwoody High School are requesting more from us academically and in their school climate. We hear our students, and will take expedited action in the following ways:
- More aggressively address the disproportionality in some of its advanced classes at the school to ensure more diverse student participation.
- Expand our collaboration with agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League to provide greater cultural awareness and education for all.
- Form a junior leadership council at Dunwoody High School that will advise campus leaders.
- Direct community participation via school campus meetings to allow open and honest dialogue.
“Our students are taking the lead in their education and lives, which is to be commended. We will commit to work in partnership with them to provide a quality education.”
Dunwoody High School is an active participant in ADL programming, said Allison Padilla-Goodman, regional director in the Atlanta office.
“They have been a great partner with us … which shows they take these issues seriously,” she said. Trainings conducted by ADL representatives at DHS include teacher training and peer leadership training for students to learn how to have deliberative conversations around discrimination, she said.
Photos Dyana Bagby