Students protesting racial harassment met with counterprotestors, hate speech

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A group of students at Greene Central High School hold a walkout during their last period classes to protest racist and homophobic harassment by other students. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

A warning to our listeners, this report includes offensive language, including hate speech, which may not be appropriate for everyone. 

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — A group of students at Greene High School in Chenango County have held protests and walkouts against racial, sexual and homophobic harassment by other students.

At a Nov. 17 walkout, they were met with counterprotestors who confronted them and shouted racial and other offensive epithets. The protesting students and their parents said their teachers and administrators haven’t taken action to curb the harassment.

At 2 p.m., about 20 students gradually trickled out of Greene High School. As more kids came to join them, there was cheering. Many of the students protesting were Black or Hispanic, some identify as LGBTQ.

“We may be the minority, but our voices will be heard,” said one student, speaking into a megaphone.

According to the New York Department of Education, Greene High School is 96% white.

A police cruiser passed by but didn’t stop. As students took turns sharing some of their experiences, there was a lot of cheering and support. 

“I shouldn’t have to go down the hallways and hear the N-word at me every day during school,” one student said.

Counterprotestors with flags

But soon after school let out, something else happened. Several groups of young white men drove by in pickup trucks and cars, shouting profanities and making rude gestures at the student protestors.

“Go home faggots,” one boy shouted.

The trucks continued to circle the school for nearly an hour.

A house near the high school in Greene displays a political flag. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

Five more young men stood a few feet away from the students. One with a long beard was wrapped in an American flag. Another passed by in a truck, wearing a Confederate flag shirt.

“Fuck Joe Biden,” one boy shouted.

Another group of boys made a joke about throwing rocks.

More than just bullying

Heather Smith is one of a handful of parents who have come to supervise the protesting students. Her granddaughter, who is Black, is among those protesting. 

“See,” Smith said, referring to the counterprotestors. “This is what she has to deal with every day at school.”

Smith used to work in a neighboring school district. She said she knows high school bullies aren’t anything new. But she said even she was surprised at how bad things have gotten at Greene.

“I didn’t know there were so many. I thought we were in the minority, with the racism that my granddaughter was dealing with,” Smith said. “I mean, they get called racial slurs, they get called faggots.”

One protesting student, Paris, said it often feels like the teachers and administrators choose not to intervene. 

“I’ll just be at my locker, and I just hear a whole bunch of people come down, and they’re saying the N-word, like, consistently, and the teachers are just standing right there,” she said. “They’re not doing anything. They’re not saying anything.”

She said that’s why they’re protesting. Paris’ classmate, Leslie Bowen, said she also has been targeted.

“People say that because I’m Latina that I’m Black, and they call me the N-word,” Leslie said. “They call my friends the N-word.”

Leslie is also Jewish. She said sometimes the harassment is anti-Semitic too.

“People also say really mean things about the Nazis, like that Jews should have died,” Leslie said.

“Maybe we lost our way”

Superintendent Timothy Calice said Greene has an anti-bullying policy. This past summer, teachers also received training on diversity, equity and inclusion. At the time, Greene’s Board of Education also voted to form a committee that would re-evaluate the district’s policies to address potential inequities.

Students held an earlier protest outside the school’s auditorium in November. A Black student was barred from participating in a school play after she retaliated against what she said was racial harassment. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

“That has been in the process this summer, it’s not a reaction to this event,” Calice said.

He added that the district hadn’t yet held the first meeting for that committee. He said schools have been asked to do a lot more this year, like enforcing mask mandates and providing weekly testing for unvaccinated employees. 

Nevertheless, Calice said he wants to remind students to report incidents, so they can be investigated.

“You know, maybe we lost our way a little bit with reminding people,” Calice said. “The last year and a half has not been normal by any means.”

The protesting students and their families said that they have reported past harassment, but said the district’s response is inadequate. One parent said she is considering legal action against the district.

Several of the students protesting said they’ve noticed a political divide in their community and at school. Calice also agreed there is a political tension at Greene High School, despite the fact that most current students were not old enough to vote in the last two presidential elections.

“Kids unfortunately parrot what their parents say,” Calice said. “Absolutely, there’s things that get said that we don’t approve of, that we do not support, we do not condone, we don’t tolerate.”

Calice said he was not aware of the counterprotestors during the walkout, but that the school would investigate.