In wake of campus unrest, CPS treads lightly

Abby Kempf

Columbia Public Schools prides itself in upholding its values of honesty, teamwork, mutual respect and persistence, among many others. Throughout the past few weeks, CPS has fought to maintain these values and keep students safe, comfortable and informed on the issues tearing across the University of Missouri-Columbia campus less than three miles away.
The CPS Superintendent, Dr. Peter Stiepleman, sent out a letter to staff, faculty and parents in the school district outlying what procedures CPS employees should use when addressing the neighboring racial tensions. He wrote, “Our goal as a school district is to create a safe, nurturing, and respectful environment for students and employees. As students process their feelings, engage in discussions with others, and try to better understand the situation, it is our job as educators to maintain a positive forum for this to take place.”
Michelle Baumstark, the Community Relations Director of CPS, said that the letter was intended to quell parents’ worries and to ensure that all CPS employees knew how to respond to and deal with the events unfolding on campus.
The letter outlined some of the work the school district is doing to continue to maintain and support a safe, nurturing and respectful environment for students and employees,” Baumstark said. “We are asking for continued tolerance, respect and compassion.”
Principal Dr. Jennifer Rukstad also sent an email to faculty to address how she wanted her staff to handle the issue at RBHS.
“On Monday morning, I sent an email to teachers acknowledging the confusion and concern about the events at the University of Missouri,” Dr. Rukstad said. “I gave teachers some guidance on how to facilitate those conversations, and allowed for them to make their own decisions about whether to do so. I know there were classrooms who had discussions, and I’ve heard of some other groups who have, as well.”
Dr. Rukstad said it was important that teachers only present truth and dispel any rumors surrounding the issue.
“[We will facilitate conversation] by encouraging listening, using resources to better understand the events, not rumors, seek to hear about the situation and issues from another perspective, set norms or ground rules for discussions, and ensure the experiences of individuals are treated with validity and respect,” Dr. Rukstad said.
Senior Shray Kumar, whose parents emigrated from India, has always felt safe and respected at RBHS and in his community at large, even as a member of a minority. It wasn’t until the recent strikes that he felt scared in the normally loving and inclusive town of Columbia.
“Columbia has always been a town where people are nice. If you ever see anybody do any sort of racist action, or discriminate against anybody based on their race, or their color or their sexuality,  you always have people who are willing to defend [the victim.] You see at RBHS how accepting people are of each other,” Kumar said. “You always read in the news about terrorist attacks and hate crimes, but I never imagined that it would all come to Columbia. With all these threats being posted against minorities in a place that I go to a lot it, kind of freaked me out. I know that people with that kind of mindset exist outside of where I live, but I didn’t expect it here.”
Kumar is referring to a recent scare on campus, due to several empty Yik Yak threats. Yik Yak is an app where users can post any anonymous message that can be seen by people in the same area. RBHS itself has had trouble with Yik Yak threats in the past as well. Click here to read more.
The UMC campus threats ranged from shooting black people to suggesting that students should stay home if they didn’t want to get hurt at the university. The two culprits were eventually arrested; one was a Northwest Missouri State University student and the other a Missouri University of Science and Technology student.
Kumar said that these threats further thrusted the Mizzou Hunger Strike and other unrest surrounding Concerned Student 1950’s movement into the spotlight. He said that while these threats are scary, they have brought up important conversations that have started vital dialogues.
“People are talking about it all the time. If you weren’t talking about it beforehand, you are talking about it now,” Kumar said. “To me personally I wasn’t really uncomfortable about a lot of things people said since I am actually seeing what people are thinking and what their point of view is and how it is different.”
Senior Hanna Abdul, whose parents are of Japanese and Jordanian descent, is preparing to apply to college, and she is second-thinking UMC because of the recent events. As a member of two minorities, Abdul is apprehensive of UMC’s social climate.
“I think anywhere you go, you will always find racism and racist acts. But it makes me question if Mizzou is the [college] for me, compared to other schools that put in effort towards diversity,” Abdul said. “Many colleges require diversity classes, but particularly at Mizzou they don’t.”
Kumar said even at RBHS, he has experienced a few race related comments being directed at him. However, he said these comments are normally born of immaturity, not bigotry.
“Occasionally people will make a terrorist joke at me, but they are just joking,” Kumar said. “Those don’t really bother me actually, despite the fact that I am the wrong ethnicity for the joke.”
While UMC is undergoing a long series of changes and updates to accommodate minority students and build up a once again inclusive and equal environment, Dr. Rukstad said RBHS isn’t planning to amend any policies because the school already has a safe environment for all.
“Are we considering change similar to what happened at the University of Missouri? No. Are the events at UMC reminding CPS and RBHS of the importance of inclusion and respect among all our students and staff? Absolutely,” Dr. Rukstad said. “The policies of CPS are there to ensure this. It is the job of all students and staff to make it happen.”
Kumar agrees, saying he feels safe and invited on campus. He doesn’t believe CPS needs to make any policies to combat racism, as the school already facilitates an environment of cohesion and inclusiveness, despite the occasional remark.
“I think race is handled pretty well already at CPS. I don’t ever feel like I am being racially discriminated against when I am at RBHS,” Kumar said. “I think CPS is doing really well with everything.”