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DeKalb students share school concerns at community forum

DeKalb students raised systemic issues like a lack of Black teachers and an unfair dress code. Several spoke about rampant physical fights.
Peter Medlin
DeKalb students raised systemic issues like a lack of Black teachers and an unfair dress code. Several spoke about rampant physical fights.

Students of all ages raised their hands to speak to the crowd at Liberty Park. At first, just a few, but as more kids gathered the courage to raise their voices, more hands shot up to ask for the microphone. Others scribbled their ideas on sheets of paper at picnic tables, holding free ice cream with their other hand.

Many people will say student voices are important. But they’re not often heard. And, thanks to the pandemic, there have been fewer opportunities for them to speak their mind to school leaders.

Recently in DeKalb, a community-organized event featuring school board members handed the microphone to students to ask what they thought could make school better.

Chance K. Calin helped organize the Youth Speak Out event with community groups like the Barb Food Mart. Calin is a DeKalb High School student and the first-ever student school board member.

“These events can happen to talk about certain problems and bring change to those problems," they said. "Even. like, the simple ones or difficult ones, we can try to tackle [and that’s] what we're hoping to do."

Some of the ideas were small. There were requests for field trips to the zoo. Who doesn’t want to see more elephants? There were also questions about food waste at a breakfast program that could maybe be remedied by just offering students water instead of milk or juice.

But, as school board member Ariel Owens told the students, just because a problem might seem small doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about. And what looks like a big problem might have a quick fix once it’s brought to the right person’s attention.

Many brought challenging issues to the table. Younger students raised systemic issues like a lack of Black teachers and an unfair dress code. Several spoke about rampant physical fights.

“I’ve only been in high school for just a year and the fights are just completely insane. I see fights up to 10 times in a school week," said Alex, a rising sophomore at DeKalb High School. "But my question is, why aren't the counselors helping? Why aren't the social workers helping?”

Alex also talked about bullying a questioned why counselors often took weeks to respond to him.

Middle school student Cameron talked about a lack of basic supplies.

“There was that TikTok trend where people stole stuff from the bathrooms," he said. "And there was no soap in the bathrooms for over a month or maybe two months.”

Those supply issues cited by students extended to period products as well.

Cameron and fellow middle School student Cassidy Gerken mentioned the social-emotional lessons implemented by the district. Moore said that while it was presented with the best intentions, in reality, it hasn’t been very helpful.

Gerken is going into 8th grade. She said her classmates often don’t have enough time to get class. She also echoed the idea that substitute teachers are often unprepared or lied to by students. Gerken said it’s caused her classes to get the wrong assignments.

“Because the second block had lied to the teacher or because the teacher didn't get enough information on what they're supposed to do," she said. "And for me having a 504 plan, I had to go to my counselor multiple times to make sure my sub didn't have it because there'd be times I would need it and the sub wouldn't have the plan or know what I needed.”

By the end of the night, around a dozen students had opened up about the issues they see in their school.

Ariel Owens and Chance Calin on the school board said this is just the first step. The next is to actually start fixing the problems they identified. Both said they hope this is only the first event of many that come directly to students for their input on how to make their school lives better.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.