Washougal School District wraps up racism investigation

Washougal High students say slurs, bullying widespread

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Doug Flanagan/Post-Record WHS students Megan West, Savannah Yokel, and Claire Zakovics, speaking for the first time as student representatives to the Washougal School Board during the board's meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 11, said that bullying and slur usage has increased among the WHS student body this year, and that morale is suffering as a result.

The Washougal School District said it has concluded an investigation into allegations that students exhibited racist behavior during a Washougal High School volleyball match on Sept. 15.

A source who wished to remain anonymous told the Post-Record that at least one student was allowed to attend the match while wearing “blackface,” a term used to describe dark makeup worn by a person that mimics and mocks the appearance of a Black person.

“There was an incident reported to us regarding one student at the WHS volleyball game early in the season whose conduct was offensive,” Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology, told the Post-Record this week.

The anonymous community member who contacted the Post-Record said the volleyball game’s theme was “dress in all black” but that, when at least one student allegedly arrived wearing blackface, they were not ejected from the game.

Brown said the district took “immediate actions” after being informed of the incident, but declined to comment on the investigation or its conclusions.

“While we can’t comment on the specifics of our investigation … our staff always fully investigates these types of situations and works with the students and families involved to help them understand the impact of their actions,” Brown said. “Our school and our district are committed to holding our students to the highest standards of respectful conduct both in school and at our extracurricular events. It is important for our sporting events and activities to be an opportunity to bring our school community together as Panthers.”

Students say slurs, bullying rampant at Washougal High

Megan West, Savannah Yokel and Claire Zakovics — the Washougal School Board’s Washougal High School student representatives — told school board officials during an Oct. 11 board meeting they have heard reports of increased bullying as well as the use of slurs inside the Washougal high school this year, and that student morale is suffering.

“We’ve had a lot of divisions in our school this year,” said West, a Washougal High senior. “A lot of people are yelling and shouting at (others). There have been frequent occurrences (of students) bringing others down and treating people as less than human lately, and bullying due to sexual orientation, race and other key parts of people’s identities. (Slurs have) been extremely prevalent in our school.”

A group of students recently met with Washougal High School Principal Mark Castle to discuss the issue, according to West.

“At the meeting, a lot of students said that because of the bullying that’s been going on, people have felt more stressed at school, and that it hasn’t been a place of belonging,” West said. “I think overall, there’s a very high stress level.”

Castle declined to answer questions about student bullying and slur usage, instead referring the Post-Record to comments in a news release issued by the district.

“The high school is its own community, with celebrations and challenges,” Castle stated in the news release. “We believe in listening to students and hearing their real experiences, and having them be part of the solutions. It’s their school and their community, so they need to have a voice in the decision making processes.”

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said the district is working to include students as active participants in their learning through student advisory panels, classroom meetings, board representatives, and service on committees and hiring panels.

“Cultivating student leadership and including student voice is an important way for us to identify important changes that schools need to make to best serve our students,” Templeton said.

West, Yokel and Zakovics thanked the district for providing programs that work to build a sense of community and belonging, such Washougal High’s Sources of Strength Ambassador Program, which leverages upperclassmen as mentors for incoming freshmen, and asked for more all-student assemblies and guest speakers that could focus on themes like expressing appreciation across differences.

Aaron Hansen, the WSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources and student services, shared a presentation with the board about ways the district and its schools are working to include students in decisions around programs and learning activities, centered on the district’s “Be You, Be Known’ campaign and building a sense of belonging.

“The research we have studied shows that students who feel they have a voice in school are more likely to be academically motivated, have a stronger sense of belonging, will be more engaged and will be more connected to staff and their peers,” Hansen said. “The more we can give our students choice, control, challenge and opportunities for collaboration, the greater their motivation, engagement, effort and persistence, which will lead to greater student achievement.”

Templeton added it is important for people to “push away from” unkindness and bullying and “lean into a new way of working together as educators, students and as a society.”

“I think that’s a skill that we need right now to develop across all sectors of society — the ability to not say unkind things, but to listen first, to figure out what can we have in common, and find solutions together, and be able to say in constructive ways, ‘I disagree,’ but to not say it unkindly,” Templeton said.

Brown said the district is working with students to “create environments that nurture respectful and inclusive interactions” in schools and at extracurricular activities” following

“Our students have shared that creating a sense of belonging and connection is critical to their learning,” he added. “We are working closely with students to build a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment where every student has what they need to succeed,” Brown said. “We value student voice and their input, and we are thankful for the students who brought this to our attention and shared their concerns so we could respond appropriately.”