Guest post by Leslie Leon with Yoseling Cueto.
Hello my name is Leslie Leon. I am an 18 year old senior at Gage Park High School on Chicago Southwest side. I was born in Chicago, Illinois but raised in Imlay city, Michigan. My parents only wanted the best for my family, therefore we moved to Michigan for a safer life. My parents decided to move back to my hometown in 2010. My life took a whole "U" turn. Everything was different, I couldn't adjust to it. Before Gage Park I used to love going to school eager to learn and make the most out of my high school life. Coming to Gage Park I slowly started to feel fear to go to school because of the surroundings.
It wasn't until this year that I began to feel alarmed being inside the school. I don't like this feeling. When I walk through the halls I have to constantly watch my back. This is something I shouldn't be feeling and this problem has a solution. No student should ever feel terror in a learning environment. We, the students, need to be heard that we fear for our safety and something should be done.
On this Tuesday, March 5, dozens of other Gage Park seniors and I were sitting in a test room forced to stay there for a voluntary test most of us refused to take. Sitting there made me want to get up in front of the class and inform every single one of the few students who were trying to take the test that we were being lied to. As the proctor and our administrators tried to bully us into taking this "voluntary" test, all I kept thinking was "do they really think we are that dumb?" The word that hung in my mind was "unfair". I wanted to return to my regular classroom and learn. I felt the pangs of hunger grow in my stomach. I my head down and I waited for time to pass by to finally leave that testing room, but in my heart, I knew it was the right thing--it is right to resist people who are treating us badly.
I thought student safety was supposed to be every school's first priority. This year at Gage, it feels like a total afterthought. We have had multiple "lockdowns" after not having any for years. Police have been summoned to the building in response to a fight without weapons, and they brought M-4 assault rifles they pointed at our classmates. Six teachers have been assaulted this year. Like most years, we have lost classmates to community violence. But this year, the school did not even acknowledge their lives at all. It was like they were nothing.
Most recently, it's been almost impossible to learn these past two weeks in Gage Park as we sit in a culture of fear. There have been 2 "incidents"--as the school has called them and the school refused to inform the school community until well after the incidents were covered in the local media. On February 20, 2013, a 15 year-old girl with a learning disability was allegedly coerced into performing a sex act in the music room. Both male alleged perpetrators were held in lieu of $350,000 bail for aggravated criminal sexual assault. Neither the parents nor the students were informed about this incident. The next week on February 26, 2013 the second "incident" occurred. Another girl was sexually assaulted in the girls' washroom, due to lack of security on the second floor; two guys went in and fondled her. Again, no one was informed not even the teachers. In fact, the young woman was told to "keep it quiet" and her parents were not informed. She told a female staff member who encouraged her to get help for the situation. When she contacted authorities, the event was covered on the news and that was how the most of the community found out about it. Two days after the assault, parents received automated phone calls and a letter was sent home explaining next-to-nothing except that an "incident had occurred".
Every student deserves to know critical information about their own safety and no one should be denied support after being attacked in a ploy to cover up the attack. This is not right.
Many rumors have grown about the students who were attacked. The silence of the administration keeps us from having positive conversations that would help prevent people from blaming the victims.
Angered by this several students have begun circulating a petition about student safety that already has almost 20% of the students signing it.
While the school showed no concern towards students' safety, they instead were concerned about testing. They constantly talk about our need to raise test scores. This week we were forced to attend a test called the NAEP. Sixty plus students from the senior class were chosen at random to take the test, and multiple message were sent to students to encourage students to take the test, while no student was informed about the reason why or really given a true choice to take it despite it being optional. Those chosen were bribed with two movie discount passes and one-and-a-half service learning hours for graduation despite there being no learning or benefit for the community and the head of service learning saying that the hours would not count because the test is not a real service learning activity.
So we acted. We talked to other seniors and got them to wear black and taught them about how they didn't have to take the test. We told them that this wasn't a service learning opportunity, and that the NAEP scores might be used against schools like ours. We talked through texting and social media.
On the day of the test, we were called out of class to attend the test. Some of my classmates refused to come. We went to the location and we told the test proctor that we didn't want to take the test and asked if we could return to our regular classes. She said, "No" and just told us to go into the testing rooms and sit down. Once we got settled, she explained the rules (no talking, no cell phone, etc). There was a student who asked about the service hours and how many we were going to receive, but the lady never answered it. All she said was "I'll get to that in a minute." at the end of the test people who participated got one hour and a half of service hours. We came to a conclusion that she probably never answered the questions because it would only give us another reason to not take the test therefore she hid the information from us and try to get around the situation. What was more important: being honest to us and helping us make our own decisions or pushing us to take the test at all costs.
There was one student in the testing room who actually was trying on the test. Six students just circled any answer, guessing throughout the whole test. One student just drew on the booklet. The rest of us just sat there waiting for the test to be over since we were not allowed to return to class. I was asked why I wasn't taking the test and I simply said "Because you can't get service learning hours for taking a test." The proctor replied, "Yes, you can. The federal government is paying for all this and they give you the hours." I ended up sitting for 95 minutes.
When we spoke to students in the other testing room, they had been treated even worse. An administrative staffer was blackmailing and threatening the students, "If you do not cooperate, activities like prom and senior luncheon may be terminated." She also said that she would no longer do any "favors" for any students. Students who refused loudly were kicked out of the exam area, only for school administration to have a ten to fifteen minute long talk which ended with them coming back in to have to take the test.
When the test was over, we were finally allowed to return to our classes, but the students who took the test were called down to eat lunch ordered from Subway paid for by the school. The students who boycotted who had already missed their lunch had to go without food. We have heard that we may miss more classes on Friday as they attempt to force this voluntary test on us again.
Gage Park's main priority should be the students' safety instead of making 60 students take an unnecessary test or trying to raise other test scores. No student or staff should feel fear when coming to school. School should be a place where students should be able to learn in a safe environment! Our lives are worth more than test scores.
Update: Yesterday, 100 students, including the authors of this post, walked out of classes and went to demand action at the Local School Council meeting. I will provide details when they become available.
Leslie Leon and Yoseling Cueto are Seniors at Gage Park High School on Chicago's South Side.
photo by a student, used with permission.