St. George • Black sisters Hayley and Millie Fletcher say for them, getting an education in the predominantly white Washington County School District has been more about surviving than thriving.
Everywhere they go — in classrooms and hallways, on a bus or at athletic events, even in the school restroom — the teens say they are on alert. They say they fear being called the N-word or racial epithets like “gorilla” or “monkey” or being told to go back to Africa. They dread the threats and retaliation that they say come with reporting the abuse.
And every time they think they have turned the page on racism, that the abuse might finally be over, another ugly incident occurs.
That said, neither the girls nor their parents, Stacey and Bryan Fletcher, blame the school district. They laud school administrators and teachers for doing “an amazing job” of trying to help stop racial abuse.
But, they say, too many students either haven’t learned from their parents that racism is unacceptable, or they don’t take it seriously.
Now, the Fletcher family hopes a new training program the district is starting will change the culture.
Trying to change
A little more than 1.5% — 588 students — of the district’s approximately 37,500 students are Black. Education, Stacey believes, is the key to ending the racism her daughters have endured in the less diverse district.
To that end, the Fletchers say, they are grateful for school administrators’ willingness to listen and make changes.
Unlike the Davis County School District, which the Department of Justice singled out in 2021 for systematic racism and has paid out millions of dollars to settle racial discrimination claims, Washington County School District officials say they are seeking to be proactive rather than reactive.
District administrators said they have met with the Fletchers and others since March to learn more about their experiences with racism and what they can do to combat the problem. As a result, Utah legal consultant Heidi Alder conducted training in May with district administrators, talking about the need to eliminate racism, discrimination and bullying and the lessons that could be learned from the Davis School District.
Administrators, in turn, are now conducting that training with all district faculty, staff and students and expect to complete that effort by Oct. 15. In addition, according to district officials, they have instituted a zero-tolerance policy and are developing a four-part learning module that violators will be required to take.
“It’s more than just training about racism,” said Steven Dunham, communications director for the district. “It’s also about discrimination against body types, sexuality or whatever the case may be. It’s really nondiscrimination training for everyone.”
Since moving to St. George, Bryan and Stacey have often had their daughters switch schools or homeschooled them after racist experiences, they said. And despite the district’s efforts and good intentions, the Fletchers said the problems with racism are ongoing.
Stacey, who is white, said the latest hate speech directed at the biracial daughters she and her husband, Bryan, adopted at birth occurred last month, on their first day of school.
Because of the racial abuse the family says Hayley encountered last year at Dixie High School, the Fletchers decided to enroll her at Crimson High School this year and give her a fresh start. Two hours into Hayley’s first day, Stacey said, her 16-year-old daughter was taking an orientation tour when some students began discussing the N-word and how they felt it shouldn’t be considered a racial slur.
Upon learning from Hayley about what happened, Stacey said she was livid. She pulled her eldest daughter from Crimson High and posted on Facebook to educate others about the scope of everyday racism and the pressing need to fix it.
“These comments are not about me,” she posted. “I swim in white privilege … My daughters do not … It is our job as white humans to fix this mess. It is our job to believe, comfort, and fight for our Black brothers and sisters. It is not the victim’s responsibility to educate and change the abuser.”
Stacey’s Facebook post has since been shared more than 400 times.
Hayley, a junior who has since been enrolled at the public charter school Utah Arts Academy, and Millie, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Dixie High School, say students have made frequent racist comments since the family moved to St. George seven years ago.
As a fourth-grader at Riverside Elementary School, Millie said, she was mocked by a male classmate over the color of her skin. Hayley, who was a fifth-grader at the time, remembers her classmates’ fixation with her hair.
“Kids were always like touching and putting stuff in my hair,” Hayley said. “And the teacher would put me in the back of the classroom so I wasn’t a distraction to other students’ learning.”
At Pineview Middle School, Hayley recalled, a boy repeatedly called her the N-word and followed her into the bathroom one day. She also remembers being called the N-word virtually every day in gym class and on the bus to and from school.
“These kids would sit in the back of the bus, looking at me and talking about the N-word and how it must really suck to be Black and a woman,” she said. “They said anyone should be able to use the N-word … because no one thinks it’s a big deal.”
Recently, classmates’ comments have been more cruel, the girls said. Millie said she was attending Dixie Middle School last year when some students ”began asking me if I liked bananas, if I was good at climbing trees and telling me I looked like a monkey.”
When Millie and her mother reported it to the principal, the students denied it, the family said. Later, Stacey said, when her daughter went back to class, a “different group of kids were making monkey noises when she walked in.”
Stacey said she believes the threat of retaliation discourages most Black students from reporting racism. For example, she said, when Millie reported what happened at Dixie Middle School, the word spread and Hayley was threatened by a classmate at Dixie High School, where she was enrolled at the time.
Hayley said the classmate told her to quit calling people out and reporting them for saying the N-word. “It’s not that big of a deal,” Hayley said the girl told her. “Maybe you should just kill yourself because people are not friends of you and your family. [They] are coming for you and your family.”
At Dixie High School last year, Hayley said, “students would call me a monkey or say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know a monkey can have a fat a--’ — or ‘I didn’t know you traveled here all the way from Africa.’”
Stacey said the use of the N-word and other racial slurs are a common occurrence in the Washington County School District and in schools throughout Utah. So is the “N-pass.”
“It’s when white kids ask a Black person if they can have a pass to say the N-word whenever they would like,” Stacey said. “It’s ridiculous and it is wrong.”
Anxiety caused by racist incidents, Bryan and Stacey said, often makes Millie sick. And Hayley has developed neurological tics, they said, uncontrolled twitches or body movements similar to those exhibited by victims of Tourette Syndrome.
Educating and organizing
Support from Hayley and Millie’s family, including their three older brothers, has helped them deal with the trauma of racism, the girls said. So did the 6,000-mile trip they took with their mom a few years ago, they said, to learn about Black history and culture, which also brought them some recognition.
Their account of the trip appeared in the Deseret Books publication “My Lord, He Calls Me,” a compilation of essays written by Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was reprinted in LDS Living magazine.
Among other things, the trio visited the Jackson, Mississippi, home of Medgar Evers, the Black civil rights activist who was murdered in his hometown in 1963 by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. They learned about Ruby Bridges, the civil rights activist who was the first Black child to attend the white-only William Frantz Elementary School during Louisiana’s desegregation crisis in 1960. They also retraced the steps of Martin Luther King Jr. through Alabama and all the way to the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, where he was murdered on April 4, 1968.
Just as education about their Black heritage has helped her daughters, Stacey said, she wants the district’s education efforts to have a similar impact on stamping out racism and other forms of abuse. She said the fact that the training is being done districtwide is critically important.
“It needs to be done at all the schools, not just one individual school,” she said. “If the entire forest is on fire, you are not going to put it out by spraying one tree with a garden hose.”
In August, Stacey and Bryan also launched their own anti-racism effort — Together We Rise — Racial Support and Advocacy Group, a Facebook page aimed at educating people about racism and advocating for racial equality.
“Utah is known as the land of Zion,” Stacey said. “We need to make it Zion and a safe place for everyone.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.