Former Biglerville students form network of support against racism

Former students reflect on experiences amid calls to change Biglerville High School's culture

  • Alanna Elder

Editor’s note: This story includes profanity.

(Biglerville) — One day in eighth-grade English class, a student took a black permanent marker to Julia Armstrong’s folder and wrote a racial slur. Armstrong, now 36, remembers showing it to the teacher, who told her to let it go because “he didn’t even spell it right.”

But the same student had said that word to Armstrong before. So had other classmates, starting from a young age. She didn’t know what one of the words meant, until she went home and asked her mom.

Armstrong, who goes by Juelz, grew up in Biglerville, a small town just north of Gettysburg in Adams County. She has an anthology of memories of being tormented by other students while adults shrugged it off and advised her to do the same.

“When you’re in kindergarten, they kind of baby the situation: ‘Get outta here, they didn’t mean it, honey.’ Then you get a little older, you’re in the middle school, now it’s literally, ‘Who cares, it’s words, get over it,’” she said.

witf · Former Biglerville students form network of support against racism

Such experiences have brought Armstrong and other former students together to challenge what they say is the district’s years-long tolerance of racism.

But back then, she and her family had to find ways to deal with the hostility.

Sometimes the targeting came from students much older than she was. And when her mom put Black Santa Clauses on the porch around Christmas, Armstrong said, high schoolers would drive by and throw eggs at them.

“My mom’s just like, ‘It is what it is, keep putting them up. The more they throw them, I’m going to keep putting them up,’” she said.

At first, her parents told her to try to ignore the racism at school.

“But then every day I’m coming home telling ya’ll this,” she said. “Now my parents are getting mad. Because now they’re calling the school and the school’s always saying, ‘Oh, no, that didn’t happen.’ So now they’re looking at me like, ‘Well, what’s really going on?’”

We have a specific need for incidents within the last two years! However we will absolutely accept and listen to stories that date back longer, because RACISM does not expire! Thank you 💕✊🏽

Posted by Racism At Biglerville High School on Thursday, January 28, 2021

 

“I’ve been through all this in the same school”

Recently, Biglerville alumni like Armstrong have found a new place for these experiences: a social media campaign against racism in their former district. More than a month ago, accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram began sharing mostly anonymous allegations of racist comments and slurs directed at Black and Latino students of Biglerville High School.

At one point, each post on the Racism at Biglerville Facebook page carried several threads of comments. As more alumni added stories, the allegations grew in scope — from accounts of racist bullying to racially biased discipline to sexual harassment – and they spanned decades in time.

They caused some alumni, many of whom who now have toddler-age children, to tend to old feelings or even see their own childhoods differently.

When Armstrong was in high school in the early aughts, it would probably have been impossible to create something like this – a public yet anonymous library of allegations. But the skeptical comments below the posts were all too familiar. It made her angry to see people casting doubt on stories attributed to current students.

“I know they’re not lying, because I’ve been through all this in the same school,” she said.

Armstrong and other alumni started posting their own memories in the comments or sending them to the account administrators.

As a middle and high schooler, Armstrong fought back physically. Sometimes, police would charge her with disorderly conduct and her family would have to pay fines and court fees.

Then, in ninth grade, she wound up in the principal’s office after a bad fight — vowing she wouldn’t stop unless the school did something to protect her.

“So then he gets mad and he tells me it don’t matter, your life is over,” she said. “Pretty much that’s it. It’s over for you. Because you want to keep fighting kids in school. I believed that.”

She lost hope in going to college and had even less interest in school. But, she said, people mostly left her alone after that fight. She moved as soon as she graduated.

Armstrong was one of the first alumni to share their stories publicly. Another was David Angeles, a 28-year-old father of two who owns and operates a food truck in the area.

“People thought I was flashy”

The Facebook page took Angeles by surprise.

“Whenever I stumbled across the racism page, I’m not going to lie to you, I chuckled. I laughed,” he said. “I’m like, what?”

He was lost in his phone for at least an hour, poring over the comments and irritating his wife.

“I was just ignoring her, blocking her. I was just having all these flashbacks and whatnot and I decided to post my story,” he said.

Angeles’ comment carried a serious allegation. He said police strip-searched him twice at the high school in 2011, his senior year, with administrators standing nearby and without his parents’ knowledge or consent.

Rumors were circulating that he was selling drugs, he said, because of the clothes and shoes he bought with tip money from his parents’ restaurant.

“People always thought I was, like, flashy,” he said.

Angeles said he was experimenting with hard drugs that year, but never sold them. Other alumni have said police or administrators treated Latino students and people who hung out with them with unfair suspicion, granting more leniency to White students from families that had lived in the area longer.

Now in recovery from addiction, Angeles said he has been rethinking how earlier experiences during school contributed to his drug use. He said he felt labeled “a bad kid” and that helped deteriorate the relationship with his parents at the time.

“They would have translators call my house multiple times and tell them things about me that most of the time weren’t even true,” he said.

One thing they did not hear until recently was the allegation that he was strip-searched. Angeles said he only told three close friends.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled strip searches in schools to be illegal unless there could be an imminent danger to students and there is no less invasive way to find out, said ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak. The statute of limitations for a civil rights lawsuit would be two years.

Biglerville Police Chief Craig Hartley was an officer at the time of the search, and said he doesn’t believe it happened.

“In order to do anything like that you would have to have the juvenile’s parents present,” Hartley said. “I don’t believe my chief would have done that, he never told me that he did that, I never did that, and I have never seen a teacher or any faculty do that.”

“They would believe he is a problem”

In the comments under a news story about Angeles, William Barranco, a seventh-grader at Upper Adams Middle School in 2001, told his story:

He said he was called down to former high school principal Richard Sterner’s office and accused of carrying drugs. Sterner and two women told him to empty his pockets in an empty classroom, he said.

“I remember they drilled me about how many hall passes were in my pockets. I think they were like a couple days old,” he said. “And I was poor so I had one pair of f—ing jeans.”

He said he was told first to lift his shirt and then to take off his shoes, socks, and pants. Barranco said his late brother had been caught on the bus with marijuana and wrongfully treated “like this big drug dealer” thereafter. The suspicion extended to Barranco, he said.

He said he probably did tell his parents about the strip search, but they felt a lot of pressure to “make sure [the family] didn’t look bad.”

“If the school said my brother is a problem instead of has a problem, they would believe he is a problem,” he said.

Sterner, who was Biglerville High School principal from 1998 until 2015, said neither strip search happened.

He would have been fired for allowing a student to be strip-searched in the office, he said, and “two women and me strip-searching a seventh-grader? I should be in prison if I did that,” he said.

At most, he said, administrators would ask students to empty their pockets or to take off their shoes so the tops of their socks were visible.

Sterner said the school took a restorative approach to discipline during his tenure, which involved listening to students and “fixing” a behavior rather than punishing them. He said referrals to administrators declined after he became principal.

“I think that we made huge strides in what it felt like to be at Biglerville High School,” he said.

When it came to drugs, he said, administrators had to have “reasonable suspicion” to do any kind of search, a lower standard than “probable cause” but higher than a student wearing flashy clothes. According to Sterner, “far more White students” received punishment for drugs than Black or Latino students.

The U.S. Department of Education published data from schools on the race, ethnicity, and disability status of students receiving certain disciplinary actions for every two years through the 2017-18 school year. The data is unreliable for small groups of students in a small school, because the department rounds numbers to protect individual students’ privacy.

In Biglerville’s case, Black students make up only one percent of the district’s student body. Latino students make up about a fourth and were overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions in 2017-18, 2013-14, and 2011-12, the earliest year for which numbers are available.

“You have to work at it, constantly”

Sterner does not discount all of the allegations on the page – he said he learned during his tenure and since then. While working as a principal for 17 years, Sterner said, the job always required him to stay vigilant of any “racial tensions.”

Once, he called the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, or PHRC, for help and ended up bringing in a consultant to help the students work through conflict around race and ethnicity.

“Can you get everything? No. You can’t get everything but you have to work at it, constantly,” he said. “And any principal who says you don’t have to work at that in South Central Pennsylvania is not working hard enough in their building.”

Ann Van Dyke, former head of the PHRC, investigated allegations of racism in schools starting in 1988.

Especially in areas experiencing demographic change, she said, “life was often really hard for the new students in the school, both because of how they were treated by other students, and sometimes because of how they were treated by the adults in the system as well,” she said.

It was common for students to experience a “hostile environment” because of race or ethnicity, Van Dyke said, and for parents to be reluctant to report their experiences out of fear of retribution.

“So we know just a small number of what’s actually occurring,” she said.

Even before social media, she said, former students’ stories would be a part of the equation.

“It is about change”

Sterner’s name pops up in several alumni’s stories, including Julia Armstrong’s. He was her high school principal. The current principal, Beth Graham, was a probation officer placed in the school before she became an administrator, but the probation officer position is no longer there. The school is deferring to Upper Adams School District on the allegations, however, so Graham did not comment.

Now a school board member in another district, Sterner ran an unsuccessful bid for state senate as a Democrat against Republican Doug Mastriano last year.

During the race, someone with his campaign called Armstrong, who said she would never vote for him after her experience in high school. Sterner reached out with a direct message on Facebook, apologizing for not handling it better.

Irish Whaley, founder of a group called Save Our People, helped with Sterner’s campaign for state senate, even after she had to cancel an event she organized for him after getting a threatening phone call. They also protested together during the George Floyd solidarity movement over the summer. When Sterner made local headlines after being pushed over, Whaley said he was coming to her defense.

So, it was disappointing for Whaley to see him mentioned in the Racism at Biglerville posts. When they finally talked about it, Sterner told her no students were strip-searched or slapped, another allegation from a former student, and she believes him.

But she also said he came up short during his tenure at Biglerville.

“You know it is about change, so if you’re not that person anymore, I’m happy. But I don’t want you to not be that person anymore because you’re running for office,” she said.

“No more excuses”

Whaley went to elementary school in the district and grew up in the area. She has more than 50 years of her own stories of racism. When the social media accounts went up, she got involved almost right away.

“The same day it hit Facebook, I knew,” she said.

The first Monday after the accounts appeared, she says students reported in a group chat that police were pulling people out of class and asking them about the account. With “no hesitation,” Whaley and a friend drove to the school. After taking a lap and talking with a police officer and Superintendent Wesley Doll, she determined it wasn’t true.

Whaley still has a question about the social media campaign: Why aren’t more parents involved?  And to her, the strategy should also include talking with administrators directly. But she said she has no doubts the problem is real and urgent.

She said teachers need diversity training and the school should have someone besides a counselor or administrator for students to confide in about racism. “Most of all,” she said, students and parents should be held accountable for racist behavior.

“My biggest thing this year is no more. No more excuses. No more pat on the back. No more,” Whaley said.

Upper Adams School District is working with the PHRC to develop a “comprehensive plan” to address racism and staff will begin training this spring. As part of its response, the district also hired a Philadelphia-based law firm to investigate allegations of racism and discrimination.

Doll wrote in an email the probe will include any reports, no matter how old, that are filed through the district’s channels or shared with the investigators, who he said will do outreach.

Ahead of the February school board meetings, the group of students and advocates planned to submit public comments detailing the allegations, but the district directed them to two separate listening sessions for current and former students instead, according to emails shared on the Facebook page.

The social media accounts have quieted in recent weeks, but alumni and allies of the social media campaign are developing strategies to ensure their voices are heard.

Alanna is part of  the “Report for America” program  — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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