Disturbing petition prompts parents to call for accountability at school

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Parents in the Park Hill School District are demanding accountability for the student or students behind a racist petition last week that they say was a call to bring back slavery.

The school district has shared few specific details about the incident, which originated at Park Hill South High School in Riverside, Missouri, last week. Nicole Kirby, a district spokeswoman, said Tuesday the matter is considered a “discipline incident” and therefore the amount of information the district may share is limited, including the number of students involved or the exact details of what transpired.

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“We can’t talk about specifics,” Kirby said. “But we wanted to make sure that we responded and let people know that we don’t tolerate discrimination or harassment.”

Kerrie Herren, principal of Park Hill South, shared a message with the student body Friday, in which he described the racist statements as “unacceptable.” He said “the impact of these sentiments are being felt heavily within our school.”

“We are outraged, hurt and saddened that this occurred,” Herren said in the statement. “This is not who we want to be at Park Hill South. Our differences make us stronger. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment.”

Julie Stutterheim’s 15-year-old adopted daughter, who is Ethiopian, heard a vague announcement over the P.A. at LEAD Innovation Studio — another high school in the Park Hill school district — on Monday about the incident at Park Hill South. She was “really upset” when she learned what happened, Stutterheim said. She heard from a classmate that it was in reference to a petition about slavery.

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The subject was a difficult one for her daughter to even raise, Stutterheim said.

“She said, ‘You know, you’re white, Mom. So you don’t really know what this is like.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’” Stutterheim said.

“And she just wanted to know that ... something was being done.”

“We are outraged, hurt and saddened that this occurred. This is not who we want to be at Park Hill South. Our differences make us stronger. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment."

- Kerrie Herren, principal of Park Hill South

Kirby said there are board policies in place with defined consequences for harassment, including racial harassment, and the district is following those rules. In the days since the incident came to light, Kirby said Park Hill has been doing “a lot of listening” with parents and students.

“We’ve set up some opportunities for students and even parents to be able to share their feelings about this and to try to provide some support to them, Kirby said, adding: “This is very much evidence that we have work to do. Because we have a commitment to creating an inclusive, welcoming environment where everyone feels like they belong.”

Terri Deayon, director of access, inclusion and family engagement for the Park Hill district, said listening tours are being made through the schools intended to assist students impacted. She said the important move forward is to derive from those conversations ways to “heal from this” and become “better in the end.”

“It is a very unfortunate situation, but we want to use this to become better, to become more inclusive, to become a more welcoming environment for our families and our students to all experience a true and genuine sense of belonging,” Deayon said. “We cannot address things without knowing that they’re there. And so sometimes unfortunately it takes situations like this where we have opportunities for growth and opportunities to become better.”

In an email to parents on Friday, LEAD Innovation Studio principal Ryan Staley said the incident involved “unacceptable and racist statements that some students posted online during a school-related activity.” He said LEAD Innovation Studio was offering additional resources for students including counseling on Tuesday.

Stutterheim was among about a dozen parents who attended a meeting Monday night with Staley, where the principal addressed the matter. Asked directly if the vaguely described racist incident was in fact a petition seeking the reinstitution of slavery, Staley said that was his “understanding.”