When Josie Amoo and Josiah Gonzales took the stand at the Scottsbluff Public School Board of Education meeting in June, they were nervous.
Amoo and Gonzales — who’ve spent most of their lives in the SBPS system — knew many of the board members and their families going into that Monday night’s meeting. Amoo had spoken to the board on previous occasions as a part of her role in student government, but never like this.
Days before, Amoo and Gonzales decided to confront the board and tell the Panhandle’s largest school district its leaders weren’t doing enough to address racism and discrimination. They prepared statements, Amoo wrote her own and Gonzales adapted a template he found online.
Amoo, a Scottsbluff High School senior, and Gonzales, a 2019 SHS graduate, told the Star-Herald they expected the board to blow them off and they felt the board nearly did.
Board President Bob Kinsey began moving the all-white Board of Education to the next agenda item, procedures for the upcoming graduation ceremony.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, two members of the board interrupted him and thanked Amoo and Gonzales for speaking out. They promised further action and, later in June, the school district released a “Declaration of Commitment to Equitable Treatment and Opportunity for All Students.”
“We, as a Scottsbluff Public Schools community, have a unique opportunity to hear all voices as we develop practices and policies reflective of our diverse communities; and we resolutely commit to consistently and genuinely embed racially diverse perspectives into all of our decision-making and our actions,” the declaration said.
The declaration was signed by Kinsey, the five other board members and the district superintendent.
“I wasn’t expecting that out of western Nebraska,” Gonzalez said.
June’s school board meeting comes as the country grapples with a zealously renewed push for equality and justice for black people killed by police. Unrest erupted from May into June after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd and was filmed doing it.
The goal of speaking out, according to Amoo and Gonzales, was to start a conversation in SBPS that might, eventually, lead to change.
For SHS Principal Justin Shaddick, that’s where change has to start.
“The policy and procedures are there, but are the conversations taking place? Are we having the awareness that we should have?” he told the Star-Herald. “Obviously not, if those two students spoke.”
Shaddick said he doesn’t believe the culture at his school is racist, but he does acknowledge that racism exists at his school.
“It’s not something that we hear on a regular basis, but I think there’s validity in what (Amoo and Gonzales) said,” Shaddick said.
To address it, Shaddick and SBPS Superintendent Rick Myles said the district has been working with several partners on the local and state level. Myles saidthe district also consulted speaker and consultant Vernon Wall.
Wall describes himself on his website as “a nationally known speaker in the areas of social justice and leadership styles" and is one of the founders and facilitators of the Social Justice Training Institute.
Last winter, Wall met with SBPS to consult it’s diversity team, according to Myles. Shaddick said Wall was also consulted in the development of training at the high school.
Wall did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
If conversation is the first step, as Shaddick suggests, Gonzales and Amoo have moved to the second and third steps. Both teens have ideas about what should be done to address racism and discrimination in the district.
“The first conversation is always the hardest,” Amoo said. “So now it feels it will be easier to create that safe environment for everybody.”
Anti-racism training and workshops for staff and teachers were some of Amoo’s suggestions.
“There’s a lot of faculty at the high school who might not know this is happening, but they definitely want to make a safe space in their classrooms and clubs,” she said.
Gonzales said he’d like to see a reinforcing of anti-discrimination rules and policy. He said he feels those punishments sometimes aren’t taken seriously enough. He also said that the Board of Education should incorporate more student representation in its body.
“I am willing to help the school in any way I can, but it is not my job to educate and explain my unpleasant encounters regarding race, gender and religious beliefs at Scottsbluff High School,” Amoo said in her statement to the board. “It all starts with you all.”