January-February 2021

The reckoning

At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, students, staff and parents are working together to address issues of racism

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Whitman High School Principal Robby Dodd. Photo by Skip Brown

Khanya Dalton was a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School the first time she was called the N-word. She was hanging out in downtown Bethesda with a group of friends from school when another Whitman student, a boy she didn’t know well, called her the racial slur three times. Though he said it jokingly, she says, the experience upset her, and a friend suggested they leave.

Then, during her junior year, some boys were talking in school about having “N-word passes” that allowed them to use the slur. Khanya was on the school bus one day when someone sent her a photo of a “pass” over AirDrop. When she posted the picture on her private

Instagram account to let her close friends know how upset she was, she says some thought the photo was “so funny” and “a cool joke.”

A native of South Africa who’d been adopted by a white couple, Khanya says she was struck by the lack of students of color when she attended Thomas W. Pyle Middle School after moving to the U.S. at age 11. She couldn’t help but notice that white students were more accepting of her than they were of other minorities.
“I benefited a lot from colorism because I’m not as dark-skinned as a lot of my Black friends were, and also I’d been educated in a British-leaning school up until I moved to America,” says Khanya, who graduated from Whitman last June. “People considered that a lot more palatable, and they considered me someone who could, quote, get along with white people.”

While the overt racism in high school devastated her, Khanya says she was equally pained by a classroom experience that she says demonstrated her fellow students’ ignorance about using the slur. She was listening to a presentation in English class during her junior year when a white classmate said the N-word while reading a quote from a novel that she’d written on an interactive whiteboard. “That is one of the things I’ll never forget, because at first there was silence, and then there was laughter, shocked laughter, but laughter nonetheless. The teacher didn’t say anything, and then I felt a lot of people look at me because I was the only Black student in my class,” says Khanya, who is now studying in London.

The student used the slur while reading the quote from A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, according to Khanya’s teacher, who asked not to be identified. The novel, an exploration of racial issues published in 1993, was one of several that the students were reading as part of a unit on race, culture and identity.
The teacher, who is white, says she was “surprised” when the student read the N-word out loud. “I can’t pretend to equate my own reaction in that moment to what Khanya must have been feeling,” she says. “But it was very uncomfortable in the classroom.”

With the incident occurring near the end of the class, the teacher says she decided against reacting immediately. She wanted to think about how to respond to ensure that she handled it “the right way.” She says she always tells her students when a course begins that they need to respect each other so that everyone feels comfortable discussing issues. Because the slur was said in the context of literature and “it was a mistake the student made, it didn’t feel the same to me” as when others deliberately use the word as a slur, she says.

“That’s why I addressed the class about it the next day, more of a teachable moment,” the teacher says. She says she told the class, “When we are reading literature and we see that word being used, we have to think about why it’s being used and notice that it is being used, but it is not appropriate in this classroom to actually utter the word.”
Khanya says she spoke to the teacher after class ended the day of the presentation and was unhappy with the teacher’s explanation about why she hadn’t admonished the student right away. “I think it’s easier to say you don’t want to single out a student, but at the same time, I was inadvertently singled out because of my race and because of who I was by that student’s language,” she says.

Those “really personal, traumatic experiences” led Khanya to get involved in anti-racism efforts at Whitman during her junior year. She joined the school’s chapter of the Minority Scholars Program (MSP), a countywide student-led group dedicated to closing the achievement gap, and shared her experiences about being a minority at Whitman in a video the chapter produced and presented that year to teachers and several classes.

“I realized that the people closest to me were really, really ignorant when it came to racism,” says Khanya, who was chapter co-president as a senior. “It’s easy to think that, oh, the people that I go to school with that I would never associate with are really racist and that’s disgusting, but it’s a lot harder to say that the people that I talk to every day, the people who I spend every weekend with, they’re racist, too, and they don’t even know it.”

In June, racist graffiti was discovered on the grounds of Whitman for the second time in three months. The school newspaper ran this photo, blurring a racial slur. Photo Courtesy of Margaret Oleynik

For students of color, Whitman has long been a school where overt acts of racism and more subtle microaggressions—everyday instances of actions or words that intentionally or unintentionally are racist—are common, according to students, parents and educators. The Bethesda school gained local media attention in April 2019 when news broke that two students had posted a photo on social media of themselves in blackface along with the N-word, and again when racist graffiti was found on school property last March and June.

According to Mike Williams, MSP co-founder and a social studies resource teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, the program’s student leaders say Whitman’s problems are part of a larger issue in county schools. “We’re seeing the stories that kids are speaking about. While they may manifest slightly different in particular schools or it may be really exacerbated in some schools like Whitman, we’re seeing similar problems across the county. It’s something that’s a big issue in our county,” he says. MSP has chapters in 25 high schools and 22 middle schools.

Of the roughly 2,000 students who attended Whitman during the 2019-2020 school year, 67% were white and less than 5% were Black, according to Montgomery County Public Schools data. About 14% were Asian and nearly 9% identified as Hispanic. These demographics offer a sharp contrast to MCPS as a whole, in which white students make up about 27% of an enrollment of just over 165,000. For decades, students and others outside of Whitman have derisively referred to the school as “Whiteman.”

On June 14, 2020, the day after racist graffiti was discovered at the school, an alum created the Instagram account “Black at Whitman.” In the coming days, the page garnered nearly 3,600 followers and there were 150 anonymous posts from people who said they were current and former students. The posts recounted incidents of racism that occurred as far back as the 1990s.

“The sheer amount of racism at Whitman never fails to shock me, even after four years. It’s not just the large heinous acts that make the news, it’s the slurs whispered in the hallway, the touching black women without permission, and a culture that emboldens racists and protects them,” says a post signed “Class of 2020” that received 381 likes. “Whitman has made me question and dislike my blackness, and I know I will be unpacking that internalized racism for years. It saddens me to know that if I could do it all over again, I would not choose to attend Whitman due to its racism.”

“The entire time I was at Whitman I was subjected to microaggressions every single day about how I don’t look black, how I didn’t sound black, people thinking my black parent wasn’t actually my parent,” says a post signed “Class of 2016,” with 259 likes. “It was so exhausting in a way I didn’t even process until later in life because I was just so used to playing that part.”

The appearance of the Instagram account “Black at Whitman” served as a wake-up call for some Whitman staff. Courtesy photo

The Instagram account, among others created about racial injustice by MCPS students, appeared as the nation was awakening to the pervasiveness of racial injustice following the May 2020 death of George Floyd and other acts of police violence. Whitman students and others from across the county protested in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, taking to the streets of their communities with signs and banners. On June 2, Whitman students helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest that drew hundreds to the parking lot of the Connie Morella Library in downtown Bethesda. The student protests came at the end of an academic year in which an MCPS study of school enrollment boundaries ignited a controversy tinged with racial overtones.

For the Whitman community, “Black at Whitman” became a moment of public reckoning of the pain and humiliation that had simmered among students of color for decades at the high school more commonly recognized locally and nationally as an academic powerhouse. At Whitman, white staffers and students could no longer ignore that racism takes an emotional and physical toll on students of color, says Chevy Chase psychologist Linda McGhee, who has treated Black students who attend Whitman and other county schools.

“Their pain, their horror, their trauma is out there for the world to see,” McGhee says. “I’ve had [Whitman] kids who’ve been called racial slurs out and out, not infrequently, where the perpetrator is unpunished, given a slap on the wrist, not suspended. They’ve been harassed, taunted, excluded, and all of those things have been exacerbated in the last year, and what you end up feeling in your body is a trauma because you are subject to that behavior, to that assault, and it sounds so bizarre to say that when we’re talking about a school like Whitman. But when you’re put down and you’re told that you’re not worthy on a day-to-day basis, either with words or actions or exclusion, the impact is cumulative on your body.”

With the appearance of the Instagram account, some members of Whitman’s staff worried about whether their own words and actions had been harmful to students of color or if they had ignored racially biased behavior. They realized they could no longer claim “it’s not me, it’s not happening in my class,” says Anne Holmes Chiasson, a staff development teacher. She participated along with nearly 50 staff members in a YouTube video posted on June 19 and titled “Whitman Staff Pledge,” in which teachers and administrators pledged to build an anti-racist culture at Whitman, to “not tolerate racist jokes, prejudiced comments or ignorant behavior of any kind” and to “call each other out on our microaggressions and bias.”

“ ‘Black at Whitman’ really brought it home for a lot of people [who were] saying, ‘Why didn’t we know about this?’ But we did, we did. We were just able to ignore it,” Holmes Chiasson says.

Skylar Mitchell, a 2015 graduate, spoke publicly about being a minority at Whitman in an April 2017 New York Times essay on why she chose Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. “As I got older, I felt less and less like I belonged. When I started taking AP courses and showing up to the same college info sessions as many of my classmates, they made jokes about quotas and affirmative action, as if they hadn’t seen me studying right alongside them for years,” she wrote. “One classmate even asked me to give up my spot on the morning announcements because ‘I didn’t need anything extra’ for my college applications anyway.”

A year later, a Black freshman spoke during a school assembly about what it felt like to be called the N-word repeatedly by fellow students. He later transferred to another school.

Breanna McDonald, a 2019 Whitman graduate, spoke out about racism and revitalized the school’s chapter of the Minority Scholars Program. Photo by Skip Brown

The Instagram account and last year’s acts of vandalism strengthened the resolve of the Whitman administrators, staff and students who were working to raise awareness about race and racism. Spurred by the blackface incident, the school implemented the OneWhitman program in the fall of 2019, a weekly, mandatory 45-minute session discussing issues of race and racism led by teachers during homeroom. The program, cut short when schools closed last March because of the coronavirus pandemic, drew mixed reactions from both staff and students, some of whom found the sessions uncomfortable, and others who were skeptical or didn’t take them seriously. For this school year, administrators retooled the program, heeding the advice of students who said they wanted their peers, not teachers, to lead the discussions, according to Principal Robby Dodd and Holmes Chiasson, who helps organize the program.

“We faced a ton of backlash with OneWhitman,” says Jordan Shaibani, a 2020 Black graduate who helped plan the program and co-led the MSP chapter with Khanya Dalton. “People were skipping it, and we had a teacher who said, ‘That’s just like the ultimate privilege to skip these seminars, to skip OneWhitman and go to Starbucks and be like, ‘I’m above it, I don’t need to be here.’ ”

OneWhitman relaunched last fall as a voluntary 30-minute Zoom session led by student facilitators with the help of staff. The sessions, held every two weeks, begin with a specific lesson—such as explaining the practice of redlining, in which banks deny loans to people based on their race to prevent them from buying homes in certain neighborhoods—and then students meet in breakout rooms to discuss it. The revamped program has been better received; more than 1,000 students showed up for the first session, according to administrators. “We needed to start to train kind of an army of foot soldiers of students to lead this anti-racism work,” Dodd says.

The school also created a new semester-long course—the LENS (leadership, equity, inclusion and social justice) Seminar—that trains students to facilitate OneWhitman sessions. The fall class had 17 students, and administrators were considering whether to add more classes in the spring, says Assistant Principal Greg Miller, who co-teaches the seminar.

“I think there’s a large segment of the Whitman population that wants to have these conversations,” says Dodd, who took over in July 2018 after the school’s longtime principal, Alan Goodwin, retired. Dodd is widely credited as the driving force behind Whitman’s efforts to address racism. “There wasn’t much time spent by anyone in the community [saying] that this really can’t be Whitman or these are just isolated incidents. Everybody has moved beyond that to know that there are systemic issues at Whitman—as there are in the nation—that we have to address.”

Yvonne VanLowe, a Black parent volunteer who chairs the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, says the new leadership, combined with the growing racial awareness in society, helped spur Whitman to examine its culture. “Good, bad or otherwise, that opened up space for a change or a revisiting of these issues,” she says. “These issues have happened all the time at the school but were handled, or you probably didn’t hear about them depending on what the issue was.”

Senior Matt Mande, a white OneWhitman student facilitator who took the LENS course, says he didn’t truly understand the institutional and structural implications of racism until he witnessed the protests after Floyd’s death. “As our student body and our staff understanding of systemic racism increases, we’re starting to respond to these incidents [at Whitman] more thoroughly and more intentionally than we have in the past,” he says.

When Dodd took over at Whitman, he became just the fourth principal in the school’s 59-year history. A Silver Spring father of two who grew up in Burtonsville, Dodd says he recalls hearing about the “mystique” of Whitman from his dad, Alan Dodd, who oversaw the school as an MCPS associate superintendent. During a 31-year MCPS career, the elder Dodd was known as a progressive educational leader who championed social justice.

During his own career, Robby Dodd has been guided by similar principles, focusing on achieving equity for all students during his years as principal of Strathmore Elementary School and Argyle Middle School, both Silver Spring schools with predominantly minority populations. Before coming to Whitman, he spent three years as an MCPS administrator charged with training other principals. In 2014, Dodd received The Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for his work at Argyle.

Having spent most of his career at schools in the eastern part of the county, Dodd says he was unaware of the racial issues at Whitman and never heard the school referred to as “Whiteman” until he became principal. He says Goodwin told him that staff were receiving training about racism and bias—efforts promoted by the MCPS Equity Initiatives Unit, which helps staff and schools create environments that focus on achieving equity. Staff from the unit had organized study circles at the school during the summer of 2018.

After becoming principal, Dodd emphasized in an introductory letter to the school community that he would focus on creating equity for all students. Once the school year began, he says he started hearing from parents of Black students and other minorities that they “didn’t always feel that the school was equitable or their kids were treated the way they should be.”

The school’s minority population has long included teens from the Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP), a residential community in Bethesda run by The National Center for Children and Families (NCCF). The program serves males ages 12 to 20 who’ve experienced physical and emotional trauma or involvement in the juvenile justice system. Eight students from GAP, six of whom are Black, are enrolled at Whitman in the current school year.

The teens attend Whitman because it is the home school for the residential community, says NCCF Executive Director Sheryl Brissett Chapman. She says the school isn’t always welcoming to the program’s Black students, who often are referred to as “the group home kids” by students and staff and have been repeatedly called the N-word during class without repercussions from teachers. In September 2019, a 19-year-old Black student from GAP was charged with assault after he allegedly struck another student with a frying pan during class, according to Montgomery County police. Chapman says the student suffers from mental health issues and had been racially harassed. He was later found not criminally responsible in a county court.

Chapman, who is Black, believes the school’s predominantly white population, combined with a competitive culture that’s amplified by parents, leads some white students to target Black students so they can feel superior. “You’re not really white unless you have somebody Black around you,” she says. “For the Black kids…you really are grieving a loss of your private reality that you are just a kid, a person. When you go to Whitman, you’re Black.”

After the blackface incident in the spring of 2019, Whitman’s student newspaper, The Black & White, took the school community to task for seeming to care more about how news of the incident might impact the school’s reputation “rather than the pervasive culture that has led to and will continue to lead to racist incidents at our school,” according to a newspaper staff editorial titled “Forget Whitman’s Reputation: Let’s Talk About Racism.”

School administrators “just don’t handle things the way they should,” says Claude Noutak, a 2020 Black graduate who says jokes about students of color were common. “I just think if they don’t stop that cycle right now, it’s just going to be a never-ending cycle of ignorance.”

“Being so predominantly white, we’ve been able to get away with not having the conversation’’ about other cultures, Holmes Chiasson says. “I think we realize that we were doing our students an injustice by not teaching them about that and really raising their awareness and helping them see the world beyond Whitman.”

Dodd says he is committed to changing “how we teach and how we lead” at Whitman through professional development and training provided by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. He acknowledged the school hasn’t “moved the needle much” to diversify the teaching staff during his tenure, but says doing so is “the highest priority.” The professional staff is more than 85% white, with Black members numbering about 5%.

He says that working to change the culture at Whitman has “stretched me as a school leader really beyond anything I’ve ever done.”

After meeting with Dodd last summer, GAP leaders were expected to hold training sessions beginning in December to educate Whitman staff about the program and to help develop an anti-racist culture, according to NCCF senior staffer Krystal Holland. She says a large part of the Whitman staff doesn’t understand the backgrounds of kids in the GAP program, “and why they come to us, and what [the school’s] responsibility is to educate them.”

With the changes to OneWhitman and other initiatives, Dodd says the school also is recognizing the important role that students can play in educating their peers. Breanna McDonald, who graduated in 2019 and is a sophomore at Howard University, is credited with revitalizing the MSP chapter. McDonald, who took honors and AP classes, says she decided to start speaking out after an experience with a teacher during her junior year rocked her self-confidence. She says the teacher made assumptions about her abilities and “never seemed to have the time” when McDonald asked for help because she was struggling in class.

The experience left McDonald wondering if “maybe I’m assuming the wrong thing about the teacher, just doubting myself, really, and doubting the experience I had because…I didn’t want to feel like I had to go into school worrying about how my teacher would perceive me as a Black female in her class.”

Under McDonald’s leadership, the chapter produced the video in which Khanya Dalton and other minority students talk about their experiences at Whitman and worked with the Student Government Association to raise awareness. In the school year after McDonald graduated, the SGA wrote three letters to Whitman administrators, calling for more action to address racism. The third letter, written in late June, called for the expulsion of the students who were found to be involved in the graffiti incidents.

Even with the school’s efforts, students of color say they know to tread carefully as they try to raise awareness. McDonald says she learned to “limit her emotions” when she was angry or upset and “to be very careful with my word choice” when speaking about the need for the MSP chapter at Whitman.

“I never came off like radical or aggressive. I would come off calm, collected, making sure I had my words right, making sure every point I had was backed up with information and making sure, especially with the administration, that I explained it in a way that made it personal,” she says. “You can’t run away from a story that a person is giving you when it’s personal.”

On June 13, the Whitman community was rocked by a display of racist graffiti discovered on campus that included the N-word, a drawing of a noose and the word “lynch” spray-painted in bright yellow on a black utility shed. Days later, recent graduate Jake Foster Hoffman, 18, of Bethesda, and a 17-year-old were charged with conspiracy to commit destruction of property. Both turned themselves in and said they regretted their actions, according to county police.

The investigation turned up a second 17-year-old who admitted his involvement in the June incident and said, according to police, that he also was responsible for racist graffiti discovered in March at the school. He was charged with two counts of destruction of property. The two 17-year-olds are Whitman students, according to the student newspaper.

“I feel both outrage and deep grief that acts of racism and hate continue to occur at Walt Whitman,” Dodd wrote in an email to the school community. On the Saturday morning that the graffiti was found, students and teachers gathered at Whitman. “Students immediately started making posters condemning racism, and we posted all over Whittier Boulevard,” SGA President Kushan Weerakoon says. “A lot of teachers immediately showed up and were standing on Whittier Boulevard. Everyone I knew came out and condemned it.”

For some students, the appearance of more graffiti was like a body blow. “For it to be a repeat, it was just really sad that there seemed to be no learning by some students,” says Grace McGuire, a white senior and SGA co-vice president.

Still, Weerakoon saw something positive in the school community’s universal condemnation of the vandalism. The incident doesn’t reflect “the value system the school is trying to give, it’s not the value system the teachers are trying to give, and it’s not the value system that a majority of students are trying to have,” he says.

Although the acts of vandalism have put Whitman in the spotlight, other county high schools have logged racial incidents; Winston Churchill High School in Potomac made headlines in February 2019 when staff caught students trading “N-word passes.” According to MCPS data, reports of hate incidents have increased dramatically in recent years. MCPS defines a hate crime as harassing a person or damaging the property of a person because of their actual or perceived personal characteristics. During the 2013-2014 school year, two hate incidents were reported in county schools. Five years later, during the 2018-2019 school year, that number increased to 27, including two at Whitman, with 14 involving the police.

Director Troy Boddy says the MCPS Equity Initiatives Unit is conducting an anti-racism audit to determine how to make the school system more inclusive of minority students. Dodd says he contacted Boddy during his first year as principal for help in addressing the long-standing issues at Whitman.

OneWhitman is also focusing on reaching parents during sessions, now held over Zoom at night, that are increasingly attracting more participants, say organizers Sally McCarthy, a white parent, and Yeages Cowan, a Black parent. Cowan says parents representing the school’s international community also have reached out for guidance because they come from countries with just one race and aren’t knowledgeable about racial issues in the U.S. “We’ve tried to create spaces where people feel safe to enter this discussion wherever they might be because we all know that we all enter discussions about race and racism in different spots,” Dodd says.

Assistant Principal Greg Miller, a Black educator who joined the staff last July, says the OneWhitman program is what drew him to the school, where he spent time years ago while working at GAP and monitoring students of his who were enrolled at Whitman. “I saw something that I could blossom and that was an authentic way to reach kids and build relationships with students,” he says. “When you think of Whitman, you think of high achieving, you think of rigor, you think of AP courses, but they were also like…let’s really talk about race, equity, bias, mental health.”

Miller is one of two Black administrators to join the Whitman staff last summer; Joseph Msefya, a former staff development teacher at Newport Mill Middle School, also became an assistant principal in July. “Two men of color on an admin team, that’s definitely different if you look at the historical context at Whitman,” says Miller, who credits Dodd with diversifying the administrative staff and promoting staff training.

“We all have bias,” Miller says. “It’s not a terrible thing, it’s acknowledging your bias and continuing to grow. What do those conversations look like, and are we up for feedback and conversation? Because we all can do better. We’re all gonna make mistakes.”

Math teacher Meg Thatcher, who’s been at Whitman for 15 years, says the training has helped her realize her own implicit bias. “The biggest one for me is the idea of timing and being late and how different cultures have a different understanding and flexibility with timing,” she says. “That’s a little thing, but that’s one area I noticed that might be more cultural than students disrespecting the fact that class has started.”

Thatcher says she and her colleagues have been discussing how to be more mindful of their actions, such as calling on students in class. “We ask questions for our own reasons, but that can absolutely get misconstrued on the other side. They can perceive it in a completely different way, like oh, she’s picking on me,” Thatcher says. “Sometimes it’s just literally random. You look out into the classroom and you pick a person. You never think a thing of it.”

On a Thursday afternoon in October, Dodd joins teachers and student facilitators on Zoom as they kick off a session of OneWhitman. About 700 people are participating, and the day’s topic is the four levels of racism: individual, organizational, institutional and systemic. After a short lesson, staff and students will move to breakout rooms.

Administrators and teachers say they are impressed by the passion of students involved in OneWhitman, though some students remain cautious about speaking and may keep their cameras off during the Zoom. Before beginning the lesson, Dodd reminds everyone that OneWhitman is a “safe” place for these conversations.

“Respect others’ opinions, and remember in the course of difficult conversations, people can unintentionally make mistakes,” he says. “Expect discomfort, for whenever we have courageous conversations about race, racism or bias, there is bound to be discomfort.”

Contributing editor Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring.