During an open forum at an Eanes ISD study session, more than an hour of powerful testimonials from former Westlake High School students shined a light on years of problematic traditions and behavior within the district. More than 60 parents, residents, faculty and alumni submitted their statements to the June 9 meeting to voice their desire for anti-racist curricula within the district.

The public outcry came on the heels of an incendiary video posted to social media June 3. The video, which has since been taken down, depicts a group of 2020 Eanes ISD graduates using racial slurs at protesters in downtown Austin.

EISD put out a public response to the video stating the district was appalled and did not condone the behavior.

However, the district’s response has not appeared to satisfy many within the community and has spurred the emergence of a new group called Chaps for Black Lives Matter, which has recently mobilized to address issues of racism within the district.

That group is also responsible for a letter sent to EISD officials days prior to the June 9 meeting; it has since been signed by more than 400 individuals petitioning for action.

In part, the letter outlined five requests that the authors believe would help EISD become a district in which all individuals are treated with dignity and respect.

“We are all aware of Westlake’s troubled racial legacy—in particular, that the school was founded after Brown v. Board of Education to resist integration; that the faculty and student body remains overwhelmingly white; and that racist incidents continue to be committed time and time again,” the letter states.

The letter also recommended the hiring of a third-party consultant focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, also referred to as DEI, and suggested the board create a DEI-focused subcommittee.

The Chaps for BLM initiative also referenced the need for accountability and argued that students who commit racist actions should face disciplinary action.

“Statements that Eanes ISD does not ‘condone their behavior or their actions’ fall flat when students are nevertheless allowed to be racist with no consequences,” the letter stated.

Alumni testimonials

During the June 9 meeting, former students highlighted several traditions they described as problematic and troubling and which they said district officials have still not addressed. One example cited during the open forum by several commenters was district pep rallies that featured Mexican hat dance, among other culturally insensitive displays.

“As a Westlake student, the school pride I felt was perverted by a sense of superiority that seemed to be actively promoted at the school and district levels,” former WHS student Katherine Bandera wrote to the district as part of the June 9 public comment period. “Looking back, I can’t help but shudder at the not so subtle racist undertones of Westlake school pride.”

Other alumni shared personal experiences, with some recounting racist behavior from fellow students and several reporting troubling experiences with staff. A majority of commenters called for a greater sense of accountability within EISD.

“Being black at Westlake High School was exhausting,” alumna Lauren Turner said. “Not a week went by that I did not hear the N-word directed at me or one of my black peers, and people stood by idly as this happened for years.”

Turner said teachers would often confuse her with other black students or call her racist names. She also remembered feeling afraid to attend football games, where she said students would often chant, “We’re rich, we’re white, we’re Westlake.”

Former WHS student Kimberly Bishop also referenced this chant and told the board that its use remains haunting and embarrassing to her years after she graduated.

“We need to make sure that all students and all parents understand that we are not the Westlake of the ’80s or even the ’90s,” Bishop said.

The district’s continued response

During the meeting, Superintendent Tom Leonard clarified that a majority of the communications he has seen from former students has been from the classes of 2012 and 2014.

“There are some things that have changed since then,” Leonard said, and mentioned a June 9 letter he penned to the community in which he showcased previous steps taken by EISD to be more proactive in teaching against hate.

Efforts have been made to increase diversity, implement social-emotional learning programs and end culturally insensitive traditions, Leonard said; he added that the district has also since organized a community forum and created a group called the Culturally Responsive Classrooms Committee.

“At the end of the 2018 school year, Westlake High School staff listened to the voices of students of color share their honest experiences on campus,” Leonard said in the letter. “The message was clear: teachers and staff must get involved when they see acts of insensitivity and hate.”

During the meeting, Leonard said EISD is receiving a large number of educational suggestions, which are currently being examined and researched.

District officials also spoke out, including Board President Jennifer Champagne, who said each board member fundamentally believes racism has no place on EISD campuses.

“We’re very committed to being a part of the change our nation needs to see,” Champagne said.

Board Member John Havenstrite called the posting of the video an “all-hands-on-deck moment” for the district.

“This is a challenge,” Havenstrite said. “This is a fight that we can’t win without the support of everybody in our community.”