Lowell's Black Students and Alumni Push Elite SF School to Confront History of Racism

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'Students feel more comfortable coming to me to deal with this situation than administrators. That shows you a lot,' said Lowell High School senior Shavonne Hines-Foster about a recent racist post incident during a virtual anti-racism lesson at the school. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco's Lowell High School is considered one of the nation's top-performing public schools – and for decades it has also been at the center of debates about race, diversity and merit.

Lowell has traditionally been the only public high school in the city where students need certain grades to get in. Members of the Board of Education are currently considering a resolution to change that policy permanently, a policy which the resolution's backers say perpetuates segregation and exclusion. Less than 2% of students at Lowell are Black.

The resolution comes as the San Francisco Unified School District continues to investigate racist, anti-Semitic and pornographic messages posted during a virtual anti-racism lesson at the school late last month.

Lowell administrators initially wrote an email to parents and students saying that the lesson had been hacked – but in a later statement changed course, saying it was "highly likely" the posts were made by a student.

Sophomore Gabrielle Grice – a member of the school's Black Student Union – said it felt like school officials were initially trying to blame people outside the school.

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"I feel like the administration responded this way to keep up their reputation of like, 'Oh, we're a really good school, free of racism. We'll welcome you with open arms.' That type of reputation,” she said. "The more you sweep things under the rug, someone is eventually going to trip over it."

When Grice first learned about the racist posts she said she wasn’t surprised and that it felt consistent with her experience at Lowell. Her father is one of the few Black teachers at the school.

"When you get into the classrooms and you sit down, you're met with many micro-aggressions and things like that, people telling you, ‘You got in just because of your dad,’ ” Grice said. “The general environment is not welcoming with Black students there.”

Gabrielle Grice, a sophomore at Lowell and member of the Black Student Union. (Courtesy of Gabrielle Grice)

Lowell Principal Dacotah Swett did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but posted a video message soon after the racist posts went up.

“If you are one of our students, the full measure of disciplinary action will be taken in accordance with the district policies up to and including expulsion,” she said in the video, addressing the perpetrator(s) of the racist posts. “I am committed to working alongside our leadership groups, the [Black Student Union], and our cultural clubs to collaborate with them and determine what we can do together to heal this fresh wound.”

Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior and Black Student Union leader, spoke during a long and emotional Board of Education meeting soon after the racist posts were made. Hines-Foster is also a student delegate for SFUSD.

"Y'all keep coddling this raggedy-ass school. Ya'll need to stop now,” Hines-Foster said at the meeting. “It's really the fact that students feel more comfortable coming to me to deal with this situation than administrators. That shows you a lot ... This has gone on for too long."

The Black Student Union at Lowell has been demanding changes at the school for decades.

Yulanda Williams graduated from Lowell in 1973. She’s now a San Francisco police officer and the president of Officers for Justice, an association of Black SFPD officers. She still remembers how it felt arriving on school grounds.

"You could feel the tension just starting to rise and the pressure starting to rise,” Williams said. She still remembers the offensive song her classmates used to sing to her: "They used to sing something that went like this: 'Dark Girl in the Night.' Why would you do that to me?"

She said there were about 300 Black students at Lowell at the time, and they organized. Williams became a member of the Black Student Union.

“When we dared to say we wanted a Black Student Union, they felt like we were revolting and like we were going to become the Black Panthers or we were going to engage in some type of guerrilla warfare with everyone there,” Williams said.

Yulanda William is now a San Francisco police officer. This is her yearbook photo from her time at Lowell High School. (Yulanda Williams)

But Williams said the real reason students fought for a Black Student Union was because she and her classmates wanted the support of Black mentors. The union also made several demands to administrators. They asked for more Black teachers, tutoring services and a day where they could celebrate and express Black culture.

When she heard about current Lowell students raising similar issues after last month's racist posts incident – over 40 years after her own experiences at Lowell – Williams said she became emotional.

“I found myself crying in tears,” she said. “I could hardly get my words out."

Tsia Blacksher was co-president of Lowell’s Black Student Union in 2016. She led a walkout after a student put up a derogatory poster on the window of the school library during Black History Month. The poster showed photos of rappers and a meme of President Barack Obama and read, "Happy Black History Month #Gang."

But Blacksher said the walkout wasn’t just about the poster. Her time at Lowell was probably the worst four years of her life, she said.

Tsia Blacksher speaks during a rally at San Francisco City Hall following a walkout at Lowell High School in 2016. (Courtesy Tsia Blacksher)

In middle school, Blacksher had excelled academically, and being accepted into such an elite high school made her feel like she'd proved the adults who doubted her wrong. But once at Lowell, she said she felt isolated. She remembers having to read from a script and play the role of a slave girl during one of her history classes.

Trying to force the school to change as a student there was exhausting, she said. Now a senior at Spelman College in Atlanta, Blacksher was back home in San Francisco when she learned about the racist posts incident.

“It kind of broke me down,” she said, adding that it felt like little had changed since she led the walkout five years ago.

“Why did I go through this stuff in high school? Why wasn't I sleeping? Why wasn't I eating? Why was I up until 3 a.m., 5 a.m., writing speeches if we're just in the same situation all over again?” Blacksher said.

SFUSD officials declined an interview request for this story, but said in a statement that the district has made several changes over the years to address racism and diversity.

The district said Lowell teachers have incorporated anti-racism practices into their work, and the school has dedicated staff members to work with historically underrepresented students. School administrators visit underrepresented middle schools to help answer questions and encourage more students of color to apply to the school.

The Black Student Union plans to hold a "stand in" outside the school on Friday afternoon to encourage the community to stand in support of changes they want to see at their school. Black Student Union members like Snit Tecle, a sophomore at Lowell, will be there.

And she doesn’t plan to end her advocacy there either. When she graduates, she plans to return to Lowell one day as a guidance counselor.

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“So I can help, hopefully more people of color, especially Black students, to make sure they don't have to endure this type of situation ever again," Tecle said, adding, "I'm going to save the school."