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Confronting Racism: Bromfield students reflect on experiences of bias and discrimination

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, the Bromfield School hosted a series of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops for high school students. Many students who participated in the mandatory training believe while it wasn’t perfect, it helped shed light on the school’s problem with bias and discrimination and emphasize that this work needs to continue.

Each high school class attended one of four identically planned Zoom sessions for an hour, with one session designated for each grade level, 9 through 12, led by DEI consultant Rebecca Rehm. Middle-schoolers were scheduled to attend their own diversity training on March 10.

Rehm began each workshop by presenting data from the survey of student experiences conducted by the school last October, to which 46% of those who responded reported they had witnessed and/or experienced “aggression and/or insensitivity based on race, culture, ability, identity, or beliefs.”

After reviewing the school’s culture and initiatives, students participated in two breakout discussions, during which they talked in groups of five to 10. Each conversation was led by students with an adult supervisor. In smaller meeting rooms split off from the main meeting, called breakout rooms, students read about real-life incidents of discrimination at Bromfield and how the incidents were handled. They were then asked to reflect on causes, impact, and preventive solutions, including why it is difficult for victims and bystanders to speak up against insensitive behavior.

Finally, students reconvened in the main meeting room to share their reflections from the session. Rehm closed the workshop with guidance on how to respond to comments expressing prejudice, bias, and stereotypes.

The need to speak up

In a video interview with the Press, Rehm said the student survey revealed that many occurrences of bias or discrimination were going unreported. In an attempt to address the issue, the school invited Rehm—who has previously organized DEI professional development for Bromfield staff—to lead a similar training for students on how to respond to such incidents. Rehm also works on the DEI Council and the LGBTQ employee resource group at Olympus Corporation.

One goal of the workshops, said Rehm, was to raise awareness. “Of those who responded [to the survey], about half had never witnessed or experienced [bias or discrimination] from their perspective,” she stated. So although some may have never been exposed to this form of insensitivity, she explained, others might have seen it but didn’t realize it was offensive. As a result, Rehm aimed to “make sure that everybody’s aware that this is a problem in the Harvard Public Schools” and provide students with tools to navigate it.

Junior Sophie Thompson said that viewing the survey results and descriptions of real incidents helped underscore the need to combat prejudice in the school because, “Just saying we have issues with racism and xenophobia in Bromfield is very different from seeing tangible data and people’s personal experiences.”

Senior Taylor Caroom agrees. By using real student examples, Caroom said, the workshop demonstrated that “even if you haven’t personally seen it, racism and other discrimination exist at Bromfield.”

Most of the students interviewed by the Press appreciated the focus on speak-up culture. “[Speaking up] is probably one of the most important things to tackle,” commented sophomore Asha Khurana, “because there’s a really big issue in our school culture with people ‘joking around,’ and if you don’t find it funny, then you’re the issue, not the joke itself.” She added: “Addressing that was a really great idea because that’s a great start to tamping down these issues in the future.”

However, senior Abigail Boissy said the discussion would have been more effective if it had centered around “why certain racial slurs and actions are hurtful” or “how we could support a friend who has been experiencing racism. … We’ve been learning [how to speak up] since kindergarten,” remarked Boissy, “so we should have done something more helpful.”

A difficult topic

Despite most of the interviewed students’ consensus that the workshops were necessary, the levels of participation in the discussions varied among grade levels. For many, the topic was difficult to talk about.

Thompson reported needing to have the teacher call on students to speak in her breakout group, and senior Aaryan Bhatt shared a similar experience, recalling that there were “massive, awkward silences” and not many people spoke. Bhatt said, “It felt like no one wanted to speak because it was too personal or they didn’t know if anyone would have the same experience.” Both Thompson and Bhatt said they wished the conversations for juniors and seniors, respectively, were more productive.

A fear of seeming ignorant in front of their peers may have contributed to students’ hesitation to speak, according to Khurana: “Everyone was being very respectful and kind to each other, but there was some fear … of making a mistake or saying the ‘wrong thing’ that caused some people to stay silent.” But, unlike Thompson and Bhatt, Khurana said the sophomores’ discussions were “pretty productive and lively” overall, which she attributed to her class being smaller and more “tightknit” than other grades.

Meanwhile, Boissy, who is half Korean, said that students of color in her session were “suddenly put on the spot to talk about their struggles [with racism] without even having time to collect their thoughts entirely,” which put them in an “uncomfortable position.” She stated that the training was ultimately ineffective “because it failed to educate students on why racism is hurtful.”

On the other hand, many students said they felt the dialogue had an impact. “There were some students in my senior session that shared some of their experiences [with discrimination] to the big group, and that was moving,” Caroom recounted. Hearing about these incidents directly from her classmates, she said, “helped put some of the discussion into perspective.”

Like Caroom, Khurana valued hearing new views on the issue from her classmates who chose to speak up. “I was thinking about what everyone in my breakout room said [for] a while afterward,” she said.

‘The damage has been done’

Rehm and many of the interviewed students agree with Thompson that the workshops were “a good first step, but can’t be the last.” They concur that while much-needed progress was made, there is still room for improvement.

Many students said the session was too short and hoped to have more in-depth conversations on this subject going forward. “We weren’t able to get to all the topics we wanted to,” Bhatt commented. “I think [the workshop] started getting into [DEI], but it needed a little more time to get that message across because we just had an hour to do all of this.” In the future, he would like to see greater emphasis on the meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion and “how to be able to stop yourself from saying inappropriate [things] to someone else of a different culture.”

Boissy, however, said the workshop came “too late,” and instead, she would have preferred that the school gave underrepresented students an apology for the discrimination they faced—especially to seniors like her. “The damage has been done,” asserted Boissy. “It would be nice for [the school] to acknowledge that we suffered so that we could have closure going forward and not have nightmares about the racism that we have experienced in Bromfield.”

Khurana said the biggest thing to take away from the training is the school’s clear intention to improve its culture. “It was very important to see that the administration and teachers were on our side,” she reflected. “I think we all just want to keep learning from this, and just incorporating student feedback into the next one is going to make it even better, even though it was a very good start.”

Olivia Ren is a junior at the Bromfield School.

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