Racism on Pennsylvania high schools and college campuses creates barriers to opportunity

How far have we come, and how far do we have to go to diminish -- and possibly eradicate -- racism in high schools and college campuses? 

Our hearing on racism on the topic pulled the curtain on the continued systematic injustice towards minority students on high school and college campuses and the lack of diversity in educators. In some Pennsylvania school districts there is a blatant lack of effort to recruit and retain educators of color and that is problematic.

The historic limited access to education for people of color is still happening. Students shared their stories of the mental, physical and emotional toll their experiences with racism and discrimination have had on their well-being. Fortunately, these students turned their painful experiences into meaningful advocacy. Their testimony showed the challenge facing educational institutions in Pennsylvania. 

Educators, including teachers and administrators play a large role in dispelling hate in their schools. It’s imperative that they are reflective of the communities that they represent but the statistics show, they don’t. While students of color make up 33 percent of Pennsylvania’s population, less than 5 percent of teachers are people of color. Across the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education faculty, 4 percent are Black, 3 percent are Hispanic and just 6 percent are Asian. When students see a diversity that reflects them in their educators, it shows promise. It shows hope. It lets them know that they can achieve that same success in life.

Testifier Tameko Patterson, Stroudsburg Area School Board director and chairperson of the Education and Legal Redress Committees for the Monroe County Branch of the NAACP, said there are so many complaints from the various school districts such as: 

  • Black student concerns of being denied access to AP/honors classes even though she received straight As.  
  • A Black student with a 4.0 GPA being told by his guidance counselor it would be better for him to attend community college instead of a university. 
  • A Hispanic woman working as a substitute teacher applied for and was denied 12 different full-time positions within the district. 

These incidents are concerning and the recourse for such incidents varies based on each school district or higher education institution because diversity and inclusion efforts vary across institutions, too.

The state does have a great resource that anyone can turn to for support in addressing racial injustice. Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and he provided compelling testimony about how racism can cause racial trauma, especially for students of color.  

Lassiter said the theory of racial battle fatigue maintains that “race-related stressors,” such as exposure to racism and discrimination on campuses and high school settings, and the time and energy students of color expend to battle these stereotypes, can lead to detrimental psychological and physiological stress. 

According to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, everyone has the right to get an education free from illegal discrimination. If you recall, up until the 1960s, most Black, Latino and Native American students were educated in segregated schools. Have we caught up with the injustices in just a few decades? Sadly, we have not.   

Racism continues to result in unequal educational outcomes. It impacts student achievement, workers earnings, and general health and well-being.   

We heard frustration from the Human Relations Commission that it possesses the expertise but lacks the authority to investigate the use of racially charged language like we heard about during the hearing, therefore, we are introducing legislation that would permit the HRC to investigate racially charged speech in the same way it currently investigates racial tensions.

Ultimately, participation by local and state governments, school leaders, teachers and the community is necessary to bring about real change.  Schools can – and must -- learn from areas of bias to create broader social changes needed for a more inclusive educational system. We look forward to being a part of the solution and working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address racism in our schools. We have an inherent understanding that these acts have a far-reaching impact on our state’s economy and resources, and the well-being of Pennsylvania communities. 

For House Democratic Policy Hearing testimony visit here.