Opinion: Cobb County redistricting marginalizes students of color

Recent Cobb graduate Hylah Daly says gerrymandered school board districts limit the voice and power of Black parents and students.

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Recent Cobb graduate Hylah Daly says gerrymandered school board districts limit the voice and power of Black parents and students.

Hylah Daly is a recent graduate of Pebblebrook High School, part of the Cobb County School District. She is a plaintiff in litigation challenging the redistricting of Cobb school board seats.

In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit against the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration and the Cobb elections director alleging that the county and school board weaponized race to draw a map that purposely diminished the voices of Black and Hispanic voters. The suit by the legal advocacy group alleges the board’s white members used a “secretive map-drawing process to maintain their tenuous majority.”

The school board’s four white Republican members endorsed the map, but the three Democrats, who are Black, opposed it.

By Hylah Daly

Often, high school students are taught in schools that racial discrimination is in the past, if we’re taught about it at all. We may be shown pictures of the first Black students to attend formerly all-white schools while enduring slurs and threats, but it’s portrayed as if that ended in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Nothing can be further from the truth in the Cobb County School District: The discriminatory map of Cobb school board districts forces us to endure some of the same mistreatment today.

Students of color like me, who grew up in Cobb County, have endured racial slurs and discrimination from white students the whole time I’ve been in high school. A white student in our magnet program once uttered a deplorable racial slur. When students reported it to the program director, he ignored it. Worse still, when we bring these problems and concerns to the Cobb County school board, nothing is done.

Students and parents of color are ignored at school board meetings and forced to endure racial harassment because the Cobb County school board district map is drawn in a way that makes it easy for the white board members to sideline us. Specifically, communities of color in Cobb County are “packed” into just three districts. Even though people of color represent half of the county population, the school board is made up of four majority white districts. Our representatives from majority-minority districts are blocked from addressing racial discrimination in schools and other issues we’ve advocated for.

Students and parents have made powerful demonstrations to stand up to racial discrimination, like organizing protests to advocate for appropriate punishments for students who harass others with racial slurs, or speaking out against antisemitic graffiti in one high school. It’s emboldened me to also get involved, speak up at school board meetings, and support my fellow students, but the racially gerrymandered school board still hasn’t done anything. Often, they don’t even respond to us. It’s the same for our parents: Most of the time, they’re ignored and disrespected.

It’s been concerning, frightening and scary to realize that if something bad happens to me or other Black and brown students, we can report it — but nothing will be done. It’s one of the reasons I was happy to graduate this summer.

Growing up in schools like this is hard. When you don’t feel safe enough to report something, because nothing will be done and the school board won’t listen, it affects you. It can affect your confidence, your self-esteem and how you act in future work environments. It’s like they want to teach us not to feel confident and to endure injustice without speaking up.

The attitude of the school board teaches us that white students can get away with anything and that we can be punished for standing up for ourselves, just because of who was in power and who got to draw school board districts. We might be less likely to stand up for ourselves in relationships, in the workplace, or in society because we’re taught to downplay what we’re going through, rather than learning that our voice matters.

Our experiences in Cobb schools make it even more important that we do stand up for ourselves and show that our voice does matter. Students continue to organize protests, speak out at school board meetings, and we even filed a lawsuit against the recently drawn school board map demanding equal representation and an equal opportunity to make our voice heard.

We hope to achieve a map that gives communities of color equal opportunity to elect a school board that takes up issues of racial discrimination and doesn’t push them to the side. There should be a mandatory reporting system for slurs and discrimination, like there is for abuse, and reports from all students should be treated with the same level of concern. Our system should promote accountability and prevent students from facing the harms of racial discrimination.

Injustice from school board redistricting affects everyone. We encourage all communities to make their voices heard. Speak up to your own school board and make them hear the issues that affect your communities, big or small. If you see something, say something — and say it loud. No student should be ignored, and we refuse to be.

Hylah Daly, the author of this guest column, is a recent Cobb County high school graduate.