A Black History Month event at Oak Park and River Forest High School may have kick-started a schoolwide discussion on race — but not in the way school officials intended.
Several white parents, none of whom would speak on the record, expressed confusion and dismay that their children were prevented from participating in a "Black Lives Matter" event Feb. 27 that was limited to black students only.
Hundreds of protestors participated in a 4-mile march through the streets of Boston, showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a news release sent out after the event, school officials said they had heard the complaints about the event.
"(Some) students and parents expressed confusion and concern about the event being for black students only," the release said. "Information about the event lacked clarity about this aspect of the conversation, and the high school is committed to improving communications in the future."
The white parents reported that their students were turned away when they tried to attend the Black Lives Matter event. The parents said they were offended that in a school and community that prides itself on diversity and inclusion that students who wanted to attend would be excluded.
But school Principal Nathaniel Rouse, who organized the event and is black, said that wasn't the intent.
"First and foremost, this is not meant to give a connotation that we were trying to be exclusive," Rouse said.
As of last year, the school's student population was 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 6 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian, according to the school's website. The high school's percentage of black students is more than twice the national average for the black population as a whole, and the percentage of students who identify as multiracial is about six times the national average, according to the U.S. Census.
Rouse said he had been approached by black students in the building since last fall as they tried to make sense of the grand jury decision not to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Mo.
In the spirit of District 200's five-year strategic plan, which has a running theme of racial equity, Rouse decided to host the Black Lives Matter event.
"I credit them with giving me the push I needed to follow my heart and do something different for our school," he said.
Rouse, who has been principal at the school for seven years, said the decision to allow only black students was based in an idea known as affinity grouping. In an affinity group, the philosophy is that students of one racial persuasion are able to express themselves fully and safely.
"In order for us to move forward, I believe the affinity group is the safe way for us to move forward in a safe environment," he said.
Rouse said as a black man, he knows firsthand that it can be challenging to be open in a mixed-race group.
"I found it has been far easier for me to talk about my experiences with racism with individuals that look like me," he said. "I still struggle myself with talking about my experiences with people who don't look like me."
As a result of the approach taken at the school, Rouse said, the students shared their thoughts about being the only black students in advanced placement classes, having few black teachers, and their feelings about always having to represent their race rather than themselves in classroom discussions.
"Unfortunately, the stories that they shared weren't new to me. They were experiences I had in high school and experiences I had in college," he said.