Racism In Rockwall

In the early fall of 2016, inside a freshman-year world geography class at Rockwall-Heath High School, a then-15-year-old, now an alumnus, experienced the first of what she says were racist incidents on campus grounds.

“I was the only Black student in the room, as well as the only hijabi,” said the student. “In the middle of our teacher’s presentation, a white student yelled out, ‘Black people shouldn’t be free’ and other racist sentiments, and our teacher proceeded to carry on class as if it was nothing. That was traumatizing to me, a 14-year old, and nobody spoke up about it.”

This is just one of the many student complaints about incidents of racism within the walls of Rockwall-Heath, one of two high schools within Rockwall Independent School District, the largest educational entity in Rockwall County, a conservative stronghold in exurban Dallas. In 2015, the county was flagged by the ACLU for being a hotspot of racial profiling towards Black and Latinx community members.

During a series of over 100 in-depth interviews conducted by BlackLivesMatter-Rockwall, students and alumni of color from both RISD high schools described their experiences on campus. Of the 30 to 40 responses that were received from RISD respondents, a third described a mostly positive experience. 

In contrast, there were nearly three times as many responses from students of color at Rockwall-Heath High School, many of which reported troubling experiences. In the 80 to 90 responses from Rockwall-Heath students of color, the majority detailed their experiences with racism within the school and administrators’ failures to discipline racist behavior.

Neither the school [nor the school district] did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

The Normalization of Bigotry

In several student and alumni interviews conducted over the last three weeks, students described their experiences as a student of color at Rockwall-Heath, describing frequent use of racial slurs, stereotypes, and physical intimidation by white students, disproportionate discipline meted out to Black and brown students by teachers, and consistent dismissal of concerns about racism by white students and teachers alike. 

Multiple students said they were repeatedly called n-word or various other slurs. One Latinx student recalled being aggressively followed down the school’s main hallway by a group of white upperclassmen chanting “Build the Wall”, as well as being consistently questioned about their own citizenship status by white students as a “joke.” Many students described how Black and brown students were often called “lazy” or “loud” by students and teachers.

In several interviews, students of color detailed incidents in which they were threatened physically — often containing video or text evidence of threats of racial violence with weapons. “I spoke in favor of immigration during class and immediately after class, I was confronted by a white student who simply said ‘You know I have a gun, right?’”, said a Latinx student.

Black students’ feelings of discomfort after hearing racist sentiments from their classmates were dismissed by teachers and administrators. Multiple Black students reported not feeling safe nor being treated the same as their white peers — often citing the lack of resources or enthusiasm to give help towards Black students from teachers. Often, Black and brown students expressed feeling that within class discussions and even simple conversations with their classmates and teachers, they were consistently seen as the agitator for merely speaking up, unwittingly forcing them into stereotypes of “angry” Black and Latinx people.

“For students like me, the moment you step into the school, there is an immediate feeling that you do not belong here,” said an anonymous Black student, “You learn over the years that there is no one here that no one is going to protect you, there is no one here that is going to defend you.”

Each of the students of color interviewed across different socioeconomic backgrounds and ages attested to the normalization of racism on RISD campus grounds, even stemming as far back as elementary school. At Rockwall-Heath, alumni from the class of 2009 — the first class to graduate from the school — detailed extremely aggressive racism on campus grounds.

“I literally went to therapy for about four-and-a-half years because of what I experienced at Heath,” said a Black alum of Rockwall-Heath’s class of 2009, “Growing up in Rockwall ISD desensitizes you [to racism] from the beginning and by high school, you’re living through hell and you think that it’s normal.”

Statistically speaking, Black and Latinx students are outnumbered in AP classes, each group’s AP participation rates being 16.8% and 32.8% of the makeup of AP students at Rockwall-Heath, compared to 44.1% of white students.

Multiple students said a disproportionate number of students of color were disciplined for dress code violations when compared to their white peers. 

The environment is enabled by a non-diverse staff: at Rockwall-Heath, 87 percent of the teachers or staff are white, while 37 percent of students are people of color. This staff make up, according to many students, created an environment rife with microaggressions and a general lack of understanding of students of color. Neither RISD high school, for example, acknowledged Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, or Asian American-Pacific Islander Heritage month prior to the 2019–2020 school year, and allowed art displays and one assembly only after minor student uproar.

A Long Overdue Reckoning 

With its roots as a small agricultural community in the 1800s, Rockwall County was home to white landowners and their Black slaves. About 329 enslaved Black people resided within the county in 1855, making up a quarter of the county’s population. As slavery was abolished in 1865, it was replaced by an oppressive form of sharecropping that bore many resemblances to the slavery it replaced. Black children could not receive even a partial education until 1880, and because schools did not offer a full educational term, Black students could not receive diplomas.

As Jim Crow laws were passed and white supremacist groups rose in membership across the South, Rockwall was also guilty of allowing violent and aggressive racism to fester within city limits. The most historically significant moment was the lynching of Anderson Ellis in 1909 in the present day town square. 

In the decades following 1909, Black Americans in Rockwall County faced extreme discrimination in education, as Black schools, in housed in crumbling facilities, ended in eighth or ninth grade. Black students were not able to earn high school diplomas from the Rockwall Independent School District until 1951, following the completion of Rockwall High School for Negroes. Prior to 1951, the only Black student to receive a diploma in the county, Gloria Williams, had to be bused into Garland and Dallas to complete her education — and her busing fees were three times that of what a Black fieldworker made during this time.

Beyond education, environmental racism impacted the Black community during the 1960s and early 1970s with the building of the Rockwall-Forney Dam, which created a 22,000 acre lake, Lake Ray Hubbard, on what was mostly Black-owned land. The construction of the lake flooded farmland, houses, and a Black cemetery; combined with white flight from Dallas as a response to integration within the urban center, the dam and resulting lake had the effect of driving Black residents out of Rockwall. 

When interviewed, few students had any knowledge of Rockwall’s history, citing the lack of this information within RISD’s curriculum.

Each of these events and factors of systematic, violent racism created the demographics that make up Rockwall today, laying the foundation for the racially stratified environment that BIPOC students have to experience on a daily basis. RISD’s lack of diversity in hiring greatly contributes to this as well, only adding to the lack of cultural understanding and racial bias between students and their administrators and teachers. 

Grassroots Journalism & Increasing Pressure

In response to the years of on-campus racism, students and alumni have recently formed a range of initiatives, clubs, and other groups within Rockwall and RISD schools to attempt to make up for the years of neglect towards celebrating the different cultures of all RISD students, as well as working towards racial reform on the city and county level.

As of the 2019–2020 school year, Rockwall-Heath students created Voices, an after-school club that primarily does work surrounding the various heritage months that occur during the school year. This allowed for the creation of a cross-school Black History Month Assembly Committee at the beginning of the spring semester, going on to host the district’s first Black History Month event at Rockwall High School. However, following little district backing and advertisement, the assembly had low attendance.

On the county and district-wide level, BlackLivesMatter-Rockwall was formed by Christian Giadolor, a Rockwall-Heath alum, and multiple other current Rockwall-Heath students. 

BlackLivesMatter-Rockwall’s efforts also include reform within RISD, as a focal point of their mission statement is the creation of a diversity and equity council to deal with racist incidents and discipline within RISD. When compared to other districts within the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, RISD is an outlier because of the lack of a committee or department dedicated to discriminatory incidents on campuses, nor are there any specific disciplinary actions outlined for racism or discrimination in any student handbooks or student codes of conduct. Nearby districts Garland ISD, Dallas ISD, Plano ISD, and and Forney ISD all have committees or district initiatives specifically dedicated to racial issues and diversity.

Saron Regassa, another member of the steering committee for BlackLivesMatter-Rockwall and current rising senior at Rockwall-Heath, spoke with me about other efforts moving forward.

“We’re working on a community model, one that works through the city, the district, and various other factors to work towards racial equity in Rockwall, and we’ll soon be ready to garner public support for something that could change this town for the better,” said Regassa.

This is the first initiative of its kind in Rockwall’s history, arranging some of Rockwall County’s first Black Lives Matter protests in June, following the murder of George Floyd, as well as Rockwall’s first Juneteenth Rally. Alongside their efforts for a memorial for Anderson Ellis, the 27-year-old man who was lynched in Rockwall’s town square in 1909, BlackLivesMatter-Rockwall aims to continue pushing for change and recognition from Rockwall’s City Council and various other local government agencies. As of August 8th, 2020, the City of Rockwall and Rockwall County have both not issued statements of solidarity with the Black community in this trying time.

“We’re asking for the bare minimum here,” said Giadolor, via phone call in July, “How come a video game franchise or any other frivolous thing has issued a statement showing their support for the BlackLivesMatter movement, and not our local officials in government?”

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