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As 17 students settled into their seats Tuesday afternoon, Kelso High School Dean of Students Andrew Gragg opened class with a question: “How many people saw what happened at that Starbucks in Philadelphia?”

Student Maritza Gonzalez recapped the situation: A Starbucks manager called police last week to have two black men arrested while they were waiting for a friend without buying anything. Students said the company’s decision to give racial bias training was better than a simple apology.

“The training might give (the employees) a sense of empathy,” one added.

Last month, Kelso High began an elective class on diversity. Discussion about events such as the Starbucks arrest make their way into class and serve as a jump-off point for students to learn how to identify and combat racism in the school. They hope also to have an impact in the broader community.

The class doesn’t follow a traditional curriculum. Gragg said he wants to take direction from students themselves.

“I want it to be based on what they see as the needs … because they’re the ones who are experiencing it every day,” he said. “We’re in the school, too, but we are not in their shoes. If they say, ‘This is what we want to do,’ that’s a pretty good indication.”

Students of color are still a relatively small minority in Kelso, though 17 percent of the district’s students are Latino, according to state figures. Nevertheless, minority high school students have experienced racial harassment for years, Gragg and other school officials say. Principal John Gummel noted last week that “we were dealing with issues of equity within the school and more specifically issues of racism, and I’m not okay with that, nor is our faculty.”

Even when the school increased discipline for racial harassment, it kept happening, Gragg said.

“You can’t suspend your way out of this problem, so we started thinking we have to do more than what we have been doing,” he said.

Parent Ophelia Noble, whose black daughter was the victim of racial slurs, was a catalyst to the process, according to Gragg. Though her foundation, Noble set up voluntary community assessments during the winter trimester for 54 nonwhite and 49 white students.

In groups, the students moved around the library and wrote down their experiences on large posters.

Gragg said “it was pretty eye-opening, because prior to that nobody would really give you the full story of what they were experiencing.”

Afterward, Gummel and Gragg hand-picked students and asked if they’d like to participate in the diversity class. “Obviously we tried to have some racial diversity in there, but (we) really just looked for kids … who we knew were leaders,” Gragg said.

The final group is comprised of five white students, eight Hispanic students, one Chuukese (Micronesian) student and four black students.

Gragg purposely chose non-seniors so the students could help change the school over time, not just in the course of one trimester. Gragg hopes the class will be offered again next school year.

Students take their leadership role seriously.

Cy Sloan, a black student in the class, said, “when I found out that they were doing this, I felt really proud and honored because they’re now finally understanding that this is a big problem going on at school and that we’re now going to start to make a change of it.”

Knowing the school would address these issues, he added, “really helped me and made me more positive around here and not so hopeless.”

Latina student America Cruz said “I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn to talk about these topics and not be afraid to step up and say something when we see something that’s wrong.”

The class has been in session for a little over a month. The students agreed that class was awkward at first because race is, in student Seth Roe’s words, a touchy subject. But already, Maritza Gonzalez said, it’s easier to address race.

“I kind of feel like we’re all family here,” Sloan added.

The group plans to use in-class discussions to take concrete steps to celebrate diversity and combat racial harassment.

Their first major effort was to place “We Welcome All” posters throughout the school. Yareli Cortez and Gonzalez also talked to teachers about the posters during a staff meeting. Now there’s a poster in every classroom.

Gragg also said that when they first hung up the posters, other students shared photos of them on social media, which made the class proud.

When Gragg mentioned Cesar Chavez Day off-hand in late March, the students jumped on that opportunity as well, making posters to spread awareness of the labor leader’s activism. Chavez, who died in 1993, organized migrant farm workers in the 1960s and formed what would later become the United Farm Workers union.

“I’m proud of all the posters ... and all the little banners and stuff that we’ve done to try to show everyone that we’re doing something and we’re starting to make a change,” student Luke Napper said.

But it isn’t easy to change a school culture overnight. “I think it’s going to take time to show results,” Roe said.

The class’ next big project is going to Kelso middle schools to hand out “We Welcome All” posters, teach younger students about diversity and encourage them to do something on their own.

Eventually the class hopes to change not just Kelso schools, but Kelso itself. Latina student Maritza Gonzalez shared a story from when she offered to help an older white woman with her groceries. The woman refused, but then accepted help from Gonzalez’s white friend a moment later. Gonzalez was just 10 at the time.

“It makes you sad when you realize that other people see you as a threat,” she said.

Roe echoed her feeling. He said he was recently walking across the Allen Street Bridge when he crossed paths with an elderly white man. When he saw Roe, who is African-American, the man tucked his book bag under his jacket and gripped it even though Roe walked into the bike lane to give him more room.

“I was 100 feet away from him,” he said.

“I think this class is definitely bigger than all of us,” Hector Luna added. “I’ve got family that’s like seven years old that live here. I just like the idea that maybe we’re making a difference — that one day when they come here they’ll be able to walk into a school that’s more welcoming.”

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