UPDATED: 03/06/2016 12:42:03 AM EST
LOWELL -- In the main entrance of Lowell High School hangs a poster with a strong warning: "No N Word."
It's surrounded by meaningful phrases -- "It's an ethnic slur" and "Let's respect each other."
The "No N Word" campaign is one of several initiatives the school has rolled out in the aftermath of a racially charged group text message that went viral on Sept. 29, 2015.
The messages, containing phrases such as "rule out black people" and a comment on lynching, rocked the diverse school community, exposed racial tensions, and resulted in six student suspensions.
Six months later, students and staff are making an effort to learn from the past.
Part of that stems from the headmaster's Cultural Competency Task Force, which will work to promote curriculum reform, professional development and other activities that "create awareness and respect" for fellow human beings.
Onotse Omoyemi, an LHS junior who co-chairs the group of students and staff, said the racial incident wasn't isolated. She calls it a catalyst for change.
"Anything that's happened after that is happening not only to deal with this specific incident, but to deal with the culture around the incident," she said.
The group plans to reveal its recommendations in a public forum in March.
Omoyemi and sophomore Melissa Lemayian, also a task force member, said the problem is a lack of information given to students about different cultures.
"A lot of people were just not as educated about certain issues as they are now," Lemayian said. "Because the school is working to make the people in the school and the staff and the students more educated in order to make Lowell an even better community."
The two students are members of the school's Black Unity Club and said they've noticed a positive response from teachers and the administration.
"Teachers are definitely more open to understanding and talking about the uncomfortable things that they were not as open to talking about before," Lemayian said.
"With the headmaster that's on board with us, I think that really helps a lot."
In February, a Black History Month essay contest on the "N-Word" challenged students to write an essay on one topic -- "addressing the language of racism."
Students were asked to discuss the racial slur's meaning and how LHS can "eradicate the language of racism and denigration." Twenty students submitted essays.
The school and district have a long list of recommendations to consider from the cultural task force; the superintendent's task force formed to investigate the texting incident; and the Our Restorative Justice (ORJ) program, which includes students involved in the texting incident.
"I feel like we're going in the right direction here," said Headmaster Brian Martin.
"We're listening and learning and we're going to implement as many of the recommendations as we can."
The group text messages from last fall came after an African-American senior, Anye Nkimbeng, won the class presidency.
Nkimbeng's parents were frustrated that the school didn't inform them of what they perceived as a potential threat to their son.
As part of its response, the school district brought in ORJ to develop a healing program. The group sets up two "circles" of students -- one for immediately affected students of the racial incident and one for others more remotely affected.
"The work with the circle results in what's known as a reparative agreement, an agreement about what would be done to repair harm," said Susan Maze-Rothstein, ORJ's acting executive director. "There are two such reparative agreements that have been agreed to by all of the parties that were in attendance at the circle process."
The reparations are confidential, she said, and the circles will reconvene in the spring to follow up on the resolutions.
"The issues had directly to do with the way issues of race are addressed, what the young people themselves agreed to do about making amends to one another, what took place around the issues that involved race," Maze-Rothstein said.
The school is also making a commitment, she said.
"It was a very positive process, particularly with the young people," she said. "They felt that they were able to express themselves and reach understanding about things and really explore the challenges that this particular incident represented to the whole community, and for them as young people growing up."
THE DIVERSITY PARADOX
The racial incident highlighted what many are calling a glaring problem that the district is trying to fix -- the lack of staff diversity.
Lowell High School's majority-minority student population is a melting pot that city leaders point to with pride. The latest 2013-2014 state data finds white students make up only 32.9 percent of the population, while Asians, African Americans and Hispanics make up a collective 65.9 percent.
Yet it contrasts greatly with the school's staff, which state statistics show was 90 percent white last year.
It's a problem that's not limited to Lowell.
"A lot of applicants are being recruited by all the (state) schools," Martin said. "It's almost like you're competing."
To help foster change, the district is collaborating with the Massachusetts Partnership for Diversity in Education to hold a job fair on March 19 at LHS.
It's also launching "Courageous Conversations," a professional development program that will begin training 30 staff members on diversity.
Has anything changed at Lowell High since the racial incident? It depends on who is asked.
Vu Nguyen, a junior, and sophomore Nate Polgreen said they've seen a change among students since the racial incident occurred.
"When people talk, if someone says the N word it's usually a no-no," Nguyen said.
"I don't know if it's the administrators that encourage it or the groups speaking out because of it, but there's definitely a change," Polgreen said.
Yet the Nkimbeng family still sees flaws in the school's response, pointing to disclosure of a heavily redacted independent report -- commissioned by the superintendent -- that doesn't specify who among LHS staff might have violated protocol in reacting to the initial incident.
The family's attorney, Ahanna Igwe, suggests a required class on diversity -- not an elective, as the district is proposing -- and educational trips that build understanding of African American heritage.
They also claim that two of the six involved students didn't make it to the ORJ circle, which was voluntary.
In the circle, Anye said that the involved students hesitated to say what exactly they did.
"It was OK, but at the same time it was emotionally just a lot of lying," he said.
In general, Anye said he doesn't see any change at the school -- positive or negative.
Fru Nkimbeng -- Anye's father -- said more participation from all students, not just minorities, is needed to improve the situation.
"Those who are attending these diversity meetings are the black kids, those who are being victimized," he said. "The people that need to be educated to feel that inclusiveness are the white kids, so that they can be part of it and learn what they take for granted. And when they learn, they are the very ones who will actually bring this message home and educate the source of all this ignorance."
Igwe, the attorney, also took issue with the fact that the family didn't receive a copy of the task force report from the district, instead receiving a copy from the Sun.
Before filing any possible lawsuit against the district, Igwe stressed his clients are trying to make sure there is a change throughout the school system.
"We are trying to give them time to see if there will be a concrete change," he said. "We don't want this kind of thing happening to members of our community."
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