Cobb students push for stronger punishment for hate speech

Campbell High students are asking the district to change the code of conduct to increase the minimum punishment for students who use slurs. (Courtesy of Kezia Kennedy)

Credit: Provided by Kezia Kennedy

Credit: Provided by Kezia Kennedy

Campbell High students are asking the district to change the code of conduct to increase the minimum punishment for students who use slurs. (Courtesy of Kezia Kennedy)

Social media posts making the rounds at Campbell High School were the final straw for Kezia Kennedy and Radiya Ajibade.

The two Black seniors said the “racist, sexist and homophobic” things being said online were not the first time they had heard those words from white classmates.

They organized more than 50 students to participate in a silent protest at a recent Cobb County school board meeting. They wore black shirts and held signs that said “we demand change” and “#notyourword,” referring to the n-word.

A handful of students asked board members to change the student code of conduct. The most severe punishment students now face for using “offensive language” is a 10-day out-of-school suspension. They want that to be the baseline punishment districtwide.

“There has been a history and a pattern of students at Campbell — and in Cobb schools all around — of just hateful acts and hate speech,” Kennedy said.

During the pandemic, the board has been challenged by its response to multiple incidents involving race. Two years ago, members couldn’t agree on the language of a resolution to decry racism. A year later, over the objections of Black board members, it included racism in a resolution denouncing antisemitism.

That resolution came about after antisemitic graffiti was found at two high schools last fall, but before antisemitic social media posts surfaced at a middle school. Meanwhile, students continue to raise issues, such as renaming schools named after Confederate soldiers, a matter that has divided the board.

“We do what we can to put policies and rules out there that encourage respect for others,” said Board Chair David Chastain in an interview Tuesday. He said the student code of conduct falls under Superintendent Chris Ragsdale’s purview.

The school district declined a request by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to interview district administrators about the matter. A district spokeswoman said existing policy already punishes students for offensive language.

“We expect all students to treat each other in a way that is consistent with the existing student code of conduct,” she said via email.

But Kennedy and Ajibade feel like it’s not enough. They’ve asked for a written response from the school board.

Campbell High School seniors Kezia Kennedy (left) and Radiya Ajibade say Cobb schools have a history of tolerating hate. They want that to change. (Courtesy of Kezia Kennedy)

Credit: Courtesy Kezia Kennedy

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Credit: Courtesy Kezia Kennedy

This legislative session in Georgia, Republican lawmakers have been pushing bills that would limit the discussion of race in classrooms, giving students fewer forums to talk about what they’re experiencing.

Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said demonstrations like the ones by the Campbell High students could become more common across the state as students look for ways to express themselves.

“Clearly, the Cobb schools have a problem,” Young said. “The students feel that there is an atmosphere that there’s a level of tolerance of other students using hurtful language. And I think that’s the kind of thing that needs to be addressed.”

Ajibade and Kennedy want students who use racist slurs to understand the implications of their actions. Going to school knowing her classmates think differently of her because of the color of her skin is painful for Ajibade.

“It’s kind of like, how many times have I had a conversation with you and you were thinking these slurs or thinking these things about me?” she said.

Kennedy agreed: “For us to have interacted with them for four years essentially and for them to still be saying and thinking these things? I don’t even know what words to use to describe that.”