Alamo Heights High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In the past week, hundreds of Twitter and Instagram users circulated a video showing three white, female Alamo Heights High School students laughing as one girl uses a racial slur. The posts garnered hundreds of likes and retweets.

The posts also started a conversation on social media about racism in the small, affluent school district with a mostly white student body as Twitter users posted screenshots of other students using racial slurs. Anonymous Instagram accounts commented on the original video with threats of violence for the three girls involved.

District officials denounced racism and called the posting of racial slurs online by their students “absolutely unacceptable,” in a statement released Friday.

“Students who have engaged in such acts have received consequences, as will students who engage in such acts in the future,” the statement said. “Likewise, cyberbullying is unacceptable. We have a responsibility to be constructive citizens on social media and to monitor how we engage and respond.”

Rising junior Gavin Wiltshire was one of the many students who saw the video when it made its rounds on social media. Wiltshire, an African American student, said it wasn’t the worst incident of racism he had witnessed.

In middle school, Wiltshire was in an argument with a classmate over who could use a portion of the playground. A self-described debater, Wiltshire felt like he was winning the argument when his classmate responded, “Well, nobody likes an [N-word].”

The student in the recently released video was not directing the slur at anyone in particular and Wiltshire acknowledged that it isn’t the norm to see students saying racist things to African American students’ faces. But that doesn’t mean people weren’t using the slurs privately.

“I have seen a lot of Snapchat messages back and forth screenshotted saying the N-word in response to the death of George Floyd and how nobody cares about one N-word,” Wiltshire said. “I didn’t know it was as pervasive as it is.”

Wiltshire said there should be disciplinary action for using racial slurs. If someone does not understand the painful history of the word, then perhaps the only thing to change minds would be to enforce consequences, he said. Wiltshire also noted he did not support the cyberbullying that occurred after the video’s circulation.

A district spokeswoman would not disclose what if any disciplinary action had been taken against the students in the video citing federal law.

Some current students and recent graduates don’t believe the district has done enough to address what they describe as a discriminatory and racist culture. Several students told the Rivard Report they want to see their school district hold students, staff, and administration accountable to prevent racism in the future.

They’re hoping the discussion that comes as a result of the video creates permanent change.

Enforcing existing policy

Alamo Heights Independent School District has a policy that addresses racism and prejudicial treatment. The student welfare policy prohibits discrimination or harassment of any student based on race, religion, national origin, or other factors.

The problem is many students don’t know about the policy and it isn’t strictly enforced, recent graduate Magoli Garcia said at a school board meeting last week.

“If there was an incident, it was not only my impression but many other students as well, that it wasn’t taken seriously,” Garcia said. “I have heard every slur under the sun at this high school and yet no repercussions were taken.”

At the meeting, Garcia spoke to a growing discussion taking place on social media about how Alamo Heights ISD addresses racism and discrimination.

She has had her own experiences with prejudice from other students. She remembers classmates in her freshman year math class saying the only reason the country needed Mexican immigrants was for them to become gardeners or maids. When Garcia joined the debate team, a teammate told her that all racial minorities should just leave the country.

“It wasn’t easy being a Latina in a white classroom, especially considering I was made fun of for having dark eyes and having [hair on my arm],” Garcia said.

Mckenzie Hervey graduated this spring alongside Garcia and shared similar experiences. Hervey, one of Alamo Heights ISD’s few Black students, remembers several times she was called the N-word. She also recalls several instances where her classmates would touch her hair without permission or remark she was smart for a Black person.

Together, Garcia and Hervey grew tired of these racist incidents. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and equipped with a desire to create real change at their alma mater for their younger siblings, the two drafted an online petition to end the school district’s tolerance of racial slurs.

The petition calls on Alamo Heights ISD to require teachers to report students engaging in discriminatory behavior in and out of the classroom and outline repercussions for first and multiple-time offenders. As of Monday evening, about 1,250 people had signed with several commenting that they had witnessed students using slurs or other racist incidents.

The two plan to talk about how to achieve change with the district’s superintendent this week, and ultimately bring the petition before the board at a July meeting.

Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Service Frank Alfaro said that while the impetus for the current discussion is the “horrendous” video that is circulating, the community needs to pivot to a larger conversation about how to prevent similar incidents in the future.

This isn’t the first time the district has denounced racism, injustice, and prejudice this month. In a June 5 letter, Superintendent Dana Bashara wrote that the district is called to be better and do more for students of color. Bashara will start having conversations with students on this topic this week, Alfaro said.

AHISD Superintendent Dana Bashara. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The superintendent also wrote to all AHISD staff on June 27 about the video, saying she felt responsible for “ensuring that young people learn from their actions in a way that heals the harms caused by such offenses.”

“I also can’t help but feel responsible at some level when I see any of our students show such a lack of understanding of the hurtfulness of their actions,” Bashara wrote. She told staff she planned to work with AHISD’s administrative team and school board to prepare an action plan.

It’s unclear what this plan will entail or how the district will act with everyone at home and students active on social media, but Alfaro said cyberbullying of any kind will not be tolerated.

He encouraged students to report any instance that breaks the student welfare policy so that the district can investigate and take appropriate action.

“We can only do something if it gets reported to us,” Alfaro said. “Now if you talk to any kids that say they know very specifically that an adult saw something and didn’t report it, that’s not okay. That’s not our policy.

“…We will listen to their stories, we will listen to their experiences and nobody’s perfect. I’m sure there’s always areas for us to improve. And that’s what this whole process is about. Improvement. It’s progress, not perfection.”

A history of learned racist behavior

The recently shared video isn’t the first time Alamo Heights ISD has attracted media attention for a racist incident. In 2012, students began chanting “USA, USA” after the boys basketball team beat Edison High School’s team. San Antonio ISD filed an incident report with the University Interscholastic League afterward claiming racist activity.

The SAISD statement said a chant of “USA” would not be contested if done in the appropriate context, however, it was directed at a school and team that was predominantly Hispanic.

The Alamo Heights superintendent at the time, Kevin Brown, said in a statement that “cheering for our country should be done for patriotic reasons, not to offend other Americans” and that the AHISD students made a mistake and the district had dealt with it and intended to move on, according to reports by mySA.

About 53 percent of AHISD’s student body is white. Roughly 40 percent identifies as Hispanic, 3 percent as Asian, 2 percent as Black, and 1 percent as two or more races. The city of Alamo Heights has similar demographics.

Several weeks ago, Alamo Heights residents held their own Black Lives Matter march that took protesters from a parking lot near the Quarry down Broadway Street to Alamo Heights City Hall.

People chant “hands up, don’t shoot” during the Black Lives Matter protest in Alamo Heights. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Roger Mortensen, a law student and activist, was in attendance at the event that drew several hundred people. He said he and other organizers wanted to go to Alamo Heights to ensure the Black Lives Matter movement’s message reached residents throughout the city and its enclaves.

He appreciated those who came out to march, but emphasized that a physical show of solidarity is the minimum.

“We have to ensure that yes, we can get out there and we can yell, we can chant and take up the street,” Mortensen said. “But at the same time, that is only going to get us the attention we need to get into the places where we need to speak to people that can make the real change.”

It’s also incumbent on the community to eradicate racism within their own homes, he said. Using racial slurs or harassing students who look different is a learned behavior.

“You shouldn’t be telling racist jokes at your barbecue that’s on Sunday and expect your kids to go to school and not tell that same joke,” Mortensen said. “What’s appropriate for your house may not be appropriate for school and if it’s not appropriate for school, was it really appropriate? … It starts in the home.”

Burgin Streetman was one of the people who helped organize the Alamo Heights BLM march. Streetman recognized how challenging it can be to honestly and openly talk about racism, but underlined the importance of acknowledging problems exist.

“As parents, friends, and neighbors we have to be open to starting the conversation, not in a shallow sense, but in a way that will open the doors for a more diverse and welcoming public school system,” Streetman wrote in an email. “One where students who practice racism or discrimination will be held accountable for their actions and curriculums show the full spectrum of experience.

“One where our white-washed histories can begin to unveil themselves.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.