As protests swept the nation after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Machayla Randall thought about her own brushes with racism, most of which had taken place in school.
A rising senior at Cherry Hill East, Randall, who is Black and Native American, said she’s sometimes told “you’re not Black,” or “you’re kind of white.” People touch her hair. Despite earning straight A’s, she said she was recommended for only one honors class going into high school — unlike friends with similar grades.
She and Black classmates with similar experiences decided to take action, organizing a march last Friday and calling on Cherry Hill to require a high school course in African American studies and make other changes to curriculum, examine school discipline rates, and address implicit bias among staff and students.
“If you look at everything going on, you can reflect back — why is this happening?” Randall said. Like other students, she believes part of the answer is in the classroom.
Schools are the latest institutions facing a reckoning over racism — a conversation led by high school students and recent graduates who say their educations on race stopped with To Kill a Mockingbird and the civil rights movement, and failed to explain the systemic racism underlying modern unrest.
And Black students are speaking out about discrimination they have endured in schools, inflicted by peers or disproportionately white teaching staffs.
On the Instagram account blackmainlinespeaks, which has more than 16,000 followers, anonymous posters who describe themselves as Black students and alumni at some of the region’s elite schools have been sharing their experiences — from stories of white students using the N-word without punishment, to teachers falsely accusing Black students of plagiarism, and administrators siding with white students in disputes.
The account’s first post, dated June 11, reads: “The Main Line. Best known for its expensive stores, exotic cars, exclusive schools and racism.” Through Tuesday, it had more than 280 posts, recounting experiences at private institutions ranging from Friends Central, the Haverford School, and Notre Dame Academy to the public schools in Lower Merion and Radnor.
Recent posts include a person identified as an Agnes Irwin student describing being mocked by a teacher for getting a math problem wrong — “She then asked the class, ‘Can you recall a black mathematician?‘ ” — to another identified as a Baldwin student who wrote that the day after President Donald Trump was elected, a white student remarked, “That’s what you minorities get.”
School officials aren’t always addressing specific allegations, but say they are listening.
“Many of our youth are telling us they don’t feel safe, they’re not feeling heard or represented in our schools. This is unequivocally not acceptable,” Melissa Gilbert, president of the Lower Merion School Board, said during a virtual board meeting Monday night, as she announced a committee on equity and antiracism. (Later in the meeting, the board solicitor read several comments from students, including one who said, “Racism runs deep here,” and “the recent milquetoast statements are not going to cut it.”)
A number of private schools named on social media have issued statements.
“We are deeply sorry for the hurt felt by our community and our failure to foster an environment where our entire community always feels heard, affirmed, and celebrated,” Wendy Hill, head of school at Agnes Irwin, said Sunday. She said the all-girls school was committed to becoming an “anti-racist institution” and would take further steps, including holding a community meeting in mid-July.
Craig Sellers, head of school at Friends’ Central, wrote on Instagram on Monday that “what we’ve read is simply unacceptable and antithetical to our mission and vision,” and promised changes including a bias reporting system and staff training.
The creators of blackmainlinespeaks — who said the effort was inspired by a similar account about a New York private school — declined to provide their names, but said in an email they are three Black recent alumnae from private Main Line schools.
“Like most Black students who have attended majority-white schools, we know the frustrating feeling of knowing that administration and teachers are not your allies,” they said. “We hope to tell the truth about these schools, to warn parents of future students ... and to make these schools aware that their silencing of us is over.”
White and non-Black students of color and graduates are also pushing for change. Petitions circulating in districts ranging from West Chester to Central Bucks demand that their schools take steps to address racism, including by incorporating more Black history, authors, and perspectives in curricula, and by hiring more Black teachers.
“We felt we were in a bubble. We were set back,” said Sravya Alla, a 2017 graduate of the Great Valley School District and a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania. “And that’s a huge failing in the education system.”
A petition she started with high school classmate and Penn senior Joshita Varshney calling for the Chester County district to educate students on systemic and institutional racism, police brutality, and white privilege — “Our curriculum must recognize and reflect the honest truth that racism still exists today,” it reads — garnered more than 1,000 signatures from students, alumni, and parents.
Alla and Varshney said they were inspired by Penn classmates. They have been communicating with students in other districts, including Upper Merion and Downingtown, and aim to take their effort to the Pennsylvania Board of Education.
In Bucks County, Drew Vogelsang, a rising senior at New York University, was quarantining at home in New Hope but wanted to take part in the activism he saw among his peers.
Growing up, he said of his school district, “the conversation on race and our country’s history with racism never took place because we were 92% white.” A petition he helped launch calls for changes in both curriculum and school culture, and has more than 550 signatures.
Some school leaders have pointed to student efforts as key for change. “We seem to be at a point where a growing majority here agrees that racism is a human rights issue, not a political one,” Liz Sheehan, president of the New Hope-Solebury school board, said at a recent protest.
Others are skeptical. In an email, the blackmainlinespeaks creators said they and others didn’t trust schools to make changes “because of the history of broken promises and of administrations and boards not respecting the importance of the initiatives.”
In Cherry Hill, Superintendent Joe Meloche joined Randall and other students at the march they led Friday, pledging that the district would fully review its curriculum this summer.
The task ahead isn’t just adding new books — but acknowledging and empowering student voices that “have not always risen beyond the individual classrooms or schools,” Meloche said in an interview. He said it was the responsibility of adults to listen and have empathy, and said the district must “truly announce ourselves as being antiracist” through policies, classes, and expectations for students and staff.
The frustrations felt by Randall and her peers had been brewing before the recent wave of protests. “We never realized we had a voice, and we could use it,” she said.