METAMORA — The day after, students in Kevin Hicks’ human relations classes were as concerned about safety as they were about the racially-charged video posted on social media.
That would be Wednesday, the day classes resumed at Metamora Township High School after school was canceled Tuesday for what police described as a “credible” shooting threat possibly related to the racist video made by four freshmen football players and targeted at one of the school’s few African-American students.
Hicks, a social studies teacher, had planned to discuss gender roles. Given recent events, he decided to switch to a more topical lesson he called "Words Matter."
“These crises come and we have to use them as a springboard, not as quicksand,” Hicks told students in a variety of ways during the three human relations classes he teaches.
The last two classes, made up mainly of seniors, are back-to-back, near the end of the school day. Same topic, different students and two different classroom discussions emerged.
A girl in the sixth hour class said she’s always surprised when others mention hearing racist comments. “I don’t hear anything like that in the halls,” she said. No one else in her class mentioned hearing racist comments, either.
Chase Behrens, a student in the seventh hour class, can’t say the same thing.
“As a student, I’ve heard a lot of different racist comments here that I haven’t heard other places," said Behrens, who like his teacher, sees the episode as a learning opportunity.
And it’s not just racial slurs, said Emily Ries, another student in the seventh hour. “It’s slurs for everyone else. I’m not sure what to do, but staying silent makes the situation worse.”
The sixth hour class began and ended on the subject of empathy. Students didn’t avoid the racist taunts in the video, but they focused more on bullying and reasons students might not ask adults to intervene, ranging from embarrassment to a lack of privacy in the guidance office. They also gave Hicks a long list of suggestions about how the school can improve its response.
After hearing Hicks describe the school as “very homogenous” several times, a student finally asked, “What’s homogenous?”
“The same,” Hicks answered.
With an enrollment of about 1,000 students, Metamora is about 92 percent white, according to figures from the most recent Illinois School Report Card. Black students make up about 1 percent of the school’s enrollment. The largest minority groups, Hispanics and students of two or more races, account for about 3 percent each, while Asians make up about 1 percent of the student body.
Students in both classes said the heavy police presence at the school made them feel safe. But several in the seventh hour class also told stories about how worried their parents or other friends were about safety in light of the shooting threat.
“I know my parents are really iffy about me going to the game Friday,” one girl said. A boy told of friends who didn’t feel safe staying in Metamora, in their own homes.
Others expressed mixed feelings, wondering if Metamora’s situation was pulling police officers from other areas where they might be needed more. Justin Hulett worried what would happen to him if he forgot his student identification.
They disputed rumors that Peoria gangs might be behind the threats or that Metamora’s varsity football players might have had something to do with the video. They wondered where the boys in the video learned some of the old-fashioned slurs they used or if they knew the history of hurt connected with the words.
Hicks reminded them that empathy extends to all parties in the video incident. He didn’t know the boys involved in making the video, he said, but he had talked briefly to the father of one. “I saw tears just pouring out of his eyes.”
Throughout the discussions, students showed a willingness to start the uncomfortable conversations Hicks and school administrators have promised since the video spread on social media late last month. Hicks and teachers from the high school, as well as Metamora’s feeder schools, will discuss other solutions Friday during a Teacher’s Institute.
Hulett said talking about race in “Metamora, such a farmer, white, Christian town,” could open up discussions on religion, nationality, and other difficult issues.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.