For those who thought America’s long and torrid affair with indiscriminate lynchings of black people ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the recent bout of cases involving lynching threats is an unfortunate reminder that some old habits die hard. In the last year and a half, a startling number of cases involving students threatening black classmates with lynchings have been reported in the country: from the case in Seattle, Washington, to the one in Modesto, California, and now, to the most recent case in Waco, Texas involving a young black girl suspected of having a rope tied around her neck during a school trip.
One hundred years after the lynching of Jesse Washington in front of a crowd of 15,000 people, the black community in Waco, Texas is once again reeling—this time, from an incident involving a 12-year-old black girl on an overnight school trip with her predominantly white classmates at Live Oak Classical School. According to the girl’s mother, the young student returned from her school trip with significant rope burns around her neck, as if “somebody had ripped her neck apart and stitched it back together.” Although representatives of Live Oak Classical School allege that the incident was purely accidental, a result of playing with a rope swing, the girl’s parents and lawyers claim otherwise.
The recent lawsuit filed by the girl’s parents against the school argues that the girl, one of two black students in her grade, had been a victim of bullying by her classmates all year. Knowing this, her mother asked to accompany the class on the school trip but her request was denied. Additionally, the school failed to notify the family of the incident, leaving the parents shocked and appalled when their daughter returned home with unexplained marks around her neck. According to the girl, the incident occurred at a rope swing set, when the girl suddenly “felt the rope come around her neck” and she fell to the ground. When she stood up, she turned around to see three white classmates, one of whom had been bullying her all year, standing around her laughing without offering to help her. Afterwards, the school provided first aid treatment over the wound but, to her parents’ dismay, did not investigate the incident further. The school continues to deny any responsibility over the incident and stands by its claim that it was all an accident.
The striking nature of the incident should be enough to disturb even the most apathetic reader: how did a 12-year-old black girl end up with rope burns so deep that pieces of it had to be pulled out of her neck? Why weren’t the parents notified immediately following the incident? Why didn’t the school open up an investigation into the incident, especially given the extent of the wound?
For Nelson Hackworth, founder of the Waco nonprofit People Openly Working for Equality and Reform (P.O.W.E.R), opening up an investigation about the incident should have been obvious. “She was hurt and she was wronged and the people who did this should have to face consequences,” he said.
Afraid that this story would be lost and forgotten by the media and the rest of the community, Hackworth organized a number of rallies for the victim. He hoped that these demonstrations would put pressure on the school to claim responsibility over the incident and open up a conversation about the experiences of young black children in predominantly white schools around the nation.
“I was appalled by the fact that this happened this close to home and that it was a young black girl that had a rope put around her neck… it made me realize that not nearly as much progress as you’d think had been made by 2016,” said Hackworth. The large turnout from the black community in Waco surprised even Hackworth, who said, “You don’t see unity like we had that day… To see my people come out and stand together and be in solidarity with someone in our community who was hurt, it was a beautiful thing.” For Hackworth and the rest of the community, it didn’t matter whether or not they knew the young girl personally; they came out in support of her because they knew that something like this could happen again and if they didn’t call attention to it, nobody would.
This recent incident in Waco reminds us of the crisis facing black girls and boys in schools across America: the failure to adequately address racism on school grounds reflects an inequitable education system where learning is safe for some students and unsafe for others. For young black students targeted by racism at school, the classroom becomes a battleground where their self-worth is challenged and their experiences are ignored. Students entering any school expect to learn and to socialize and at the very least, they should be afforded the opportunity to do those things in a safe and comfortable environment. In an interview with The Atlantic, author Monique Morris calls upon educators to step up and commit to addressing these issues because “our girls are resilient, but they need their community of concerned adults to help them construct a new narrative.” And though undoubtedly resilient herself, the young girl in Waco deserves the support of teachers and school officials from around the country to remind her that black children matter.