Eleven McKeesport Area High School students allege their school district has blocked the creation of a black student union. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, they sued the district and its superintendent in federal court last week.
In the lawsuit, the students said the club is meant to celebrate black culture and history. Its members also want to explore racial disparities in school discipline. Their court filing cites data that suggests black McKeesport students are expelled and suspended at disproportionately high rates compared to their white peers.
District superintendent Mark Holtzman, meanwhile, has encouraged white and black students to form a new club. Holtzman said the new group is meant to be more inclusive.
To learn more about the effort to form a black student union at McKeesport Area High School, 90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring spoke with three of members of the club: TyNeshia Bowling, Grace Walker, and RaSona Webb. The ninth-graders said a dozen other students also belong to the group, which is seeking access to school facilities.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
‘White people can join the group’
AN-LI HERRING: Do you think there’s been any misunderstanding outside of your circle or the black student union about what’s really going on here?
RASONA WEBB: Ah, yes, yes. Some people think we’re doing it for the wrong reasons, if that makes sense.
HERRING: What would the wrong reasons be?
WEBB: People say that we’re making this group to talk about white people and bash them. And some people said that, if we make this group, we’re just going to tear everything apart and ruin the school. And then, if we make this, like, this club, white people [are] going to want to make a white student union, and it’s going to divide the whole school up.
HERRING: What would the group do?
WEBB: I mean, white people can join the group … I don’t think it would divide our school only because so many white and black people are close friends. So I feel like this group would help more than divide.
‘They made it the McKeesport student union’
HERRING: Dr. Holtzman called in a group of 15 students to meet and try to form a new group that he said would be for all students, after you had proposed the black student union and hadn’t gotten approval for that yet. Grace, you were at that meeting. What happened?
GRACE WALKER: First, he brought up how he wanted to give everyone a chance in the school to bring us together. And he was talking about how he wanted [to form a larger group] ... he didn’t care what we would name it.
... I was the only one in the whole 15 people who wanted [a black student union].
So everyone was like, “Well, we don’t need it.”
And Mr. Holtzman, someone asked him what made him [have reservations about forming a black student union], and he said the trial of [Michael Rosfeld, the East Pittsburgh police officer found not guilty in the shooting death of black teenager Antwon Rose] made him change his mind. That’s what he told everyone.
HERRING: And RaSona, you were at the second meeting [called by Holtzman]?
HERRING: And who was in the group? It was just you two, RaSona and Grace, from the black student union ... Who else was there?
WALKER: There [were] like four black kids ... And there [were] like six white kids.
WEBB: The rest were white. The question came up, [and] it was, like, "What are we going to be called?" And [a senior in the group] was like that it should be called – well, he didn’t say what it should be called.
But he was like, “Dr. Holtzman said that people in this group wanted a black student union.” And then he said, “But I’m not black.”
And then everybody just started laughing. And we were just like, “Alright.” And then, they made it the “McKeesport student union.”
Two clubs, different paths
HERRING: How big was the original group [who wanted a black student union]?
WEBB: Original, original? Like, four.
HERRING: And RaSona and Grace, you both were part of that?
HERRING: Were you, TyNeshia?
TYNESHIA BOWLING: No, not at the time.
HERRING: Why did you decide to join eventually?
BOWLING: The meetings they were having at school that Dr. Holtzman put together, Grace would tell me about them, like in lunch or something. And I think that the voice wasn’t really being heard about what they really wanted. And I wanted to be a part of that.
HERRING: So the effort to create the McKeesport student union, which was initiated by Dr. Holtzman, motivated you to join the black student union?
WEBB: Yeah, I just don’t get. If the McKeesport student union is a club – and there’s no problem with that – I’m still trying to figure out why the black student union isn’t together.
They called us down for a meeting for the McKeesport student union or whatever. That’s one meeting. Like, nothing before, nothing prior to that meeting – it just happened. And it was a club automatically. But the black student union, on the other hand, is still pending. I just don’t understand that.
Mixed student reaction
HERRING: You said there’s kind of been a divided response to [the proposed black student union] within the student body?
HERRING: Have you found that it tends to be black students who are more supportive or white students? Does it fall along racial lines?
BOWLING: Sometimes it tends to be more black students who are more supportive because they get it. Like, they follow up on news and stuff – well, some do.
WALKER: It depends who because some white people I have talked to want to do it. But some black people that we talk to, they don’t think that we should have it.
BOWLING: Yeah, some seemed scared.
WALKER: They seem scared to get involved, basically. But I mean, I think they would join it when it’s passed. I think they’re scared to join it.
WEBB: Now, because there’s so much going on.
‘People don’t get a lot of things that we go through’
HERRING: What have you learned so far from this whole experience?
BOWLING: So far, I have learned that a lot of people don’t get a lot of things that we go through – and some people don’t want to get it. They don’t want to hear about it. That’s probably one of the reasons why they’re trying to shut it down and not talk about anything. That’s why I think we should have a black student union: to talk about everything.
HERRING: The disparities in discipline were a reason to start this group. Do you personally worry that you are becoming more of a target from authority figures within the school?
WEBB: Oh yeah, most definitely. Most definitely.
HERRING: And that hasn’t stopped you?
WEBB: Because it’s not really – I mean, I’m not scared. But like, if you don’t do it, then there’s not going to be change.