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Immigration assignment at North Carolina high school sparks racism debate

It was meant to be part of a social studies assignment tied to the US presidential campaign and the national debate about immigration. Instead, Erwin High School in Buncombe County, North Carolina, started its school year with a class project that inflamed existing racial tensions.

The assignment in question? Students were required to create “bumper stickers” reflecting a point of view based on the topic of undocumented immigration. They were asked to share opinions for and against immigration, based on those they’d heard expressed by presidential candidates. Approximately 30 bumper stickers were created, several of which expressed anti-immigration viewpoints. All were displayed along school hallways at the end of August.

“The project was a part of our proof curriculum for North Carolina for 12th grade civics, and the activity was designed to discuss naturalization and immigration,” Jim Brown, the school’s principal, told TODAY. The class project included discussions about inflammatory statements made by Donald Trump about undocumented Mexican immigrants in his campaign speeches. But the activity at the almost 30 percent minority school turned hateful when some students began voicing anti-immigrant views during class discussions.

“Some white students in the class agreed with Donald Trump, saying, ‘He won my vote’ and laughing,” said Ozzy Bastardo, an Erwin senior in the class. “They were saying the racist things Trump said and making other racist comments." He told TODAY that Latino students became uncomfortable and felt bullied as the anti-Latino jeering escalated when more white students joined in.

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“We were really upset but we were afraid to say anything because we were outnumbered by white students,” said Bastardo, a Mexican immigrant. The classroom teacher, Jesse Reeck, who is biracial herself, watched but failed to address the taunting, said Bastardo.

The situation escalated when Reeck placed the bumper stickers in school hallways, without explaining their relationship to the civics assignment.

While there were numerous pro-immigrant bumper stickers, the negative ones were considered offensive by many students, especially Latino and black ones, and some teachers. Brown later called the display “inappropriate” following the backlash.

Anger spread beyond school hallways into the community and became a racial crisis when an Erwin student posted pictures of the anti-immigration bumper stickers on the Facebook Page of local news station WLOS.

As a heated debate raged on social media, parents and students demanded answers about the project at an emotionally charged school-sponsored community meeting held Sept. 2. Anger focused on Reeck, who tearfully apologized to the community. According to the Ashville Citizen Times, she explained that the assignment "was a reflection of what we see today on the news in the presidential campaign and in the world around us." TODAY’s requests to speak with Reeck were denied by a school representative, who said that all communication requests by media would be handled by the school district.

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But even that meeting provided evidence of disparities immigrants face in the school system. Many of the meeting attendees spoke only Spanish yet no professional translators were provided — a common complaint about all school-related activities. Brown said there is a Spanish-speaking receptionist at the school, however.

During the meeting, community members demanded and received apologies from Brown and district superintendent Tony Baldwin. After the meeting, Baldwin also promised community leaders that poor or failing grades received by students, like Bastardo, who refused to complete the final assignment, would be withdrawn. Both Brown and Baldwin promised changes and further discussions.

Latino students launched a protest the day after the offensive bumper sticker display, in which mostly Latino students waved Mexican flags and loudly shouted “Mexico!” The assembly was deemed a “riot” and dispersed by school officials.

The school confiscated the flags and warned students that bringing them was a violation of its policy (though Brown asserts he knew nothing about this until afterward). And while Bastardo didn’t feel there were problems before this incident, his sentiment isn’t expressed by others at the school.

According to Nadirah Rahman, who taught at the school from 2010 to 2014, there is pervasive fear among students and teachers of different racial backgrounds to speak to the media. Rahman was the only former employee who would speak to us on the record. Current teachers were prohibited from speaking to TODAY.

And while Mexican and gay pride flags are banned (after a January protest involving the flag), Rahman told TODAY that Confederate flag paraphernalia was ubiquitous at the school during her time there. “White students wear them on shirts, boots, belt buckles and even painted on their nails,” she said. TODAY was able to confirm with community activists at the Center for Participatory Change that they have received numerous complaints from Latino and African-American parents and students about these policies.

School officials, however, vehemently denied the existence of institutionalized racism and related disproportionate distribution of resources or application of school discipline. They declined to address questions about safety concerns by parents and students of color at Erwin about being bullied at school by white students, abused by staff and teachers and arrested without investigation. They said they are working with the community on “diversity and tolerance” efforts.

But community members are thinking more broadly. After this latest outrage, a series of community meetings were held by local organizations, including the CPC, which has pushed for racial equity in Western North Carolina.

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“People do not want to send their kids to the school because of the racism, but we believe in our school; we believe in our community," said CPC's Andrea Golden. "These are things we want to change.”

Norma Duran Brown, a white Argentine and non-practicing attorney who is Latino outreach coordinator for Children First/Communities in Schools, agrees with Golden. She has been working with the school system for five years and is a familiar face at Erwin. “We need to look at all that is happening with a different depth, intentionality, from the correct angle and in the proper context.” Brown feels the school is being responsive and is open to dialogue with the community. She wants to see resources allocated toward an inclusive, multilingual environment where all voices are heard and community concerns effectively addressed.

Golden, who organized a meeting between school officials, CPC and other concerned local groups on Sept. 10, remains hopeful. “The coalition presented a list of demands from parents and students and the school district listened,” she said. The coalition will meet with Erwin High School officials again on Oct. 7.

Of the meeting’s outcome, she told TODAY, “We have some strong allies within the school system. But I think in the next couple of months, we’ll see if they go from listening to actually strategizing and changing the system.”

She thinks their program could be part a national model that can be applied in schools systems across the country since so many others are also experiencing issues with structural racism. She will be reaching out nationwide to see what other districts are doing and forming partnerships, she said.

When asked, prior to last week’s meeting, if the school was open to change, Jim Brown told TODAY, “Our goal is to have these people feel they are included in the process and welcomed. And, if there's a perception they're not invited to participate in our school activities, if they feel like that they're not valued, we want to change that.”

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