Students gather at Gaithersburg High School Monday evening to discuss racial equity and social justice. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

Less than a week after a community meeting about a systemwide school boundary study sparked wide-reaching conversations about racial equality across Montgomery County, students met at Gaithersburg High School Monday night to discuss ways to “make the adults understand” how racism and segregation impacts learning.

Facilitated by County Council President Nancy Navarro and student member of the Board of Education Ananya Tadikonda, much of Monday’s meeting centered on comments made during a public meeting last week about a countywide boundary study where some parents opposed shifts in neighborhood school borders.

Students said they were hurt by the comments they felt were “racist and segregationist,” and highlighted instances where they’ve felt discriminated against or unjustly profiled.

“The idea of understanding there are people who don’t look like you in the world and being able to interact with them without being awkward about it and just understanding they are equal to you is an integral skill that needs to be ingrained into us by the public education system” said Clarksburg High School junior Zoe Tishaev, one of about 75 students from across the county who attended. “When it’s not, that’s a failure.”

Northwood High junior Kaylah Tengeya said students at her school — with a minority-majority population and 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meal plans — are often at a disadvantage because teachers have fewer resources to help students.

“If you were to ask a lot of the kids if they feel like they’re already set up to fail, they would probably say yes,” Tengeya said. “Everyone wants to do well and they’re trying to do well, but they’re not able to because resources are missing.”

Students suggested having a community forum, led by students, and meeting with parents who are most upset or concerned about the boundary study to discuss the concerns of both sides of the argument.

Maceda Berhanu, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said even how each individual school is laid out invokes segregation and makes it difficult for students to interact with others “unlike themselves.”

“There’s always these hallways, like ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] or art hallways, where you’re always surrounded people who are like you and you’re experiencing new things,” Berhanu said. “Once you find people you’re comfortable with, you don’t move out of that area.”

Some students who attended were optimistic the conversations about racial equity happening in the county and the efforts being started to address “institutional, systemic racism,” but several said they aren’t sure solutions will be found.

“I don’t know how long they’ve been fighting for the whole equality thing in the county, but at this point it’s like if it happens, it happens but if it doesn’t I don’t know what else I can do,” Berhanu said.

Monday’s conversation will help mold countywide racial equity and social justice legislation to ensure Montgomery County is “working intentionally to close gaps and disparities,” Navarro said.

“The goal is to adopt the legislation this fall so everything we do, we have to do it through the lens of equity. A policy can change and cannot be implemented, but you have to follow laws,” Navarro said. “I don’t like when we talk about changing demographics because we are those demographics. This is who we are in the county.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at