Editorial: We stand in support of the @unheardvoicesoffcps Instagram account

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Illustration Courtesy of Adobe

Hawk Talk Staff

Madison graduates Tinielle Carson (’20), Melena Durham (’19), AJ Arnolie (’19), Paige Perkins (’20), Sammy Lee (’20), Ava Bagherian (’20) and Beau Lages (’20) created the @unheardvoicesoffcps Instagram account after seeing Tweets about an interaction between recent Madison graduate Keisha Young (’20) and Principal Greg Hood and the presence of the Vienna Police Department at the June 2 senior celebration, which, according to account managers Carson and Durham, “brought back emotional experiences from high school that were just brushed under the rug.” The account allows students of oppressed groups to share their experiences in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), as well as to show support for other students. Since its founding 12 days ago, the account has gained 922 followers and shared 100 stories.  

“We made the account to bring awareness to our stories and other students’ stories,” Carson and Durham said. “The best thing to do is educate yourself first and then people at the school, starting from administration to teachers and staff to students.”

We, The Hawk Talk staff, stand in support of the account, its creators and contributors and its goals. The account provides a safe, inclusive space for students to speak out, anonymously or using their names, about their experiences with other students, teachers or administrators–something many FCPS schools lack. Although schools often cite Student Government Associations (SGA) as a means for students to speak out about issues, the structure of SGAs at most FCPS schools does not encourage transparency or accessibility. For example, at Madison, SGA is offered as a class, so students who are not enrolled cannot easily attend meetings or voice concerns. At a higher level, the Fairfax County School Board allocates one seat for an elected student representative each year, but the role of the student representative and the procedure for how students can get in contact is not widely or frequently publicized, especially given that there is only one student representative in a county of nearly 200,000 students. In addition, neither of these platforms allow students to share their experiences anonymously if they do not feel comfortable or safe revealing their identities.

This account and what it stands for are essential for creating change at Madison and in FCPS. By providing a public forum and encouraging students to speak out about injustices they have experienced or seen, @unheardvoicesoffcps not only amplifies the voices and experiences of students of color, LGBTQ+ students, non-Christian students, students with disabilities and students with mental health conditions, which for too long have been ignored and dismissed, but also inspires other students to speak out and calls on leaders within FCPS to act. Carson and Durham note that there need to be consequences for “anyone who makes derogatory remarks towards any student (or teacher) about their race, religion or sexuality,” and that schools should offer “electives about different minority groups in order for people to learn about and understand other cultures and communities.”

As journalists, we have an obligation to “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable” and to “give a voice to the voiceless,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The creators and managers of @unheardvoicesoffcps have given a voice to the voiceless by creating the space and providing the tools for students to speak out, and the contributors are holding FCPS leaders accountable by sharing how those leaders have failed them and how they can improve. And we stand in support.

In her post, Laine Miller (’22) described the use of homophobic slurs by Madison students.

“It’s not just a word,” Miller said. “You don’t know the pain someone may be going through when they overhear you say it or when you call them it as a joke.” 

Miller hopes to see schoolwide assemblies implemented at Madison, during which teachers and administrators outline consequences for using homophobic and derogatory language and students can share personal stories of oppression, similar to those being posted on the account, in order to to raise awareness of the experiences of LGBTQ+ students and address the discrimination they face. Additionally, Miller suggested that counselors create a helpline that students can text to enable students of oppressed groups to easily reach out and express any issues they are facing relating to discrimination. 

Sarah Jones (’21) has had similar experiences with homophobic slurs and discriminatory actions at Madison. In her post, Jones shared her experiences with homophobia on the Madison field hockey team, recounting multiple times when her teammates had used the derogatory “f-word” slur and said “that’s so gay,” in a blatantly negative sense. 

“I had never said anything before and this gave me a platform to hold other girls accountable,” Jones said. “[The @unheardvoicesoffcps account] was honestly an easy way for me to come forward.” 

The issue of students using discriminatory language is not simply the result of some Madison students’ attitudes toward their LGBTQ+ peers, but also the administration’s reluctance to adequately discipline students. Some students believe administration may fear backlash from parents of students who are disciplined for using bigoted language. 

“The problem with FCPS admin is that they are afraid of getting sued because there are people in the county who have the money to do so,” Jones said.

Layla Hasanzadah (’22) shared her story with the @unheardvoicesoffcps account, as being a Muslim of Afghan descent has resulted in her having to deal with the brunt of terrorist jokes during her school life. 

“In elementary school I was often made fun of for being Middle Eastern and Muslim,” Hasanzadah said. “People would shout out ‘Allahu Akbar,’ call Muslims terrorists, and talk about 9/11 in front of me. It made me feel as though my country and my people were inherently violent, and led me to have a really hard time aligning with fellow Afghans and Muslims.”

She hopes to see FCPS help its minority students by not only implementing mandatory cultural and religious sensitivity seminars for both students and teachers, but also integrating these teachings of kindness and tolerance into our social academics. Hasanzadah explains that this can help lessen the culture shock when the students are in the real world.

“I’m so tired of hearing students moan and groan at these ideas when they never had to go through the humiliation POC (people of color), minorities, and LGBT had to go through, even during elementary school when kids are considered ‘innocent’ and ‘harmless,’” Hasanzadah said.

As one of the few black girls in her grade, Kameela Lemma (’21) shared her experience with white peers using the “n-word” in order to shed light on the racism she encounters at school. By voicing her story, Lemma believes she can begin to bring awareness to the discrimination and injustices that minority students experience and hopes to incite reform in our school system.  

“I want to see more minority teachers being hired which will help minority students feel more comfortable speaking about how they feel,” Lemma said. “I would also like to see teachers and administration go through bias training to ensure that they can handle racism in the right way.”

While many FCPS staff members have completed equity and cultural responsiveness training, the discrimination that students of oppressed groups continue to face indicates that the current trainings have not yet effectively addressed intolerance in FCPS schools. 

In the future, the creators and managers of the @unheardvoicesoffcps account plan to post educational threads, expand their work to other counties, start petitions and contact FCPS leaders directly to create lasting change.

“Students/faculty/the FCPS School Board are starting to notice the racism and homophobia in FCPS schools and we hope that FCPS will make changes to make their minority students feel more welcome and safe,” Carson and Durham said.

The Hawk Talk staff stands in support of the @unheardvoicesoffcps Instagram account, as it provides a platform for students of oppressed groups to share their experiences, holds FCPS leaders accountable and is critical for the creation of a more inclusive, anti-racist FCPS.