Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
For the first time, Hispanic students speak out about the "build a wall!" chant at their school
The school district is working with parents and students to make sure something like this never happens again
The video was seen around the world.
Shot in a school cafeteria at Royal Oak Middle School, just outside Detroit, you can hear seventh grade students shouting, “Build a wall! Build a wall!” the day after Donald Trump won the presidency.
The chant matches what many of Donald Trump’s supporters yelled throughout the presidential campaign whenever the Republican candidate, at rallies, promised to build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
The seven-second video would be viewed on social media millions of times and held up by media outlets as an example of the post-election harassment toward children of color observed in schools across the country following the election.
CNN reached out to the Royal Oak school district to learn about how schools try to heal following incidents of racial harassment related to the presidential campaign.
What we found was a community in pain, dealing with the backlash of social media, the struggle of schools striving to be safe havens for all children and the collateral damage – the children – that can be left behind.
‘I was so scared’
What may have started out as a typical day in the Royal Oak Middle School lunchroom for 12-year-old Josie Ramon and her best friend, Isabelle Castilla, quickly turned into an experience that would rupture their sense of safety and security.
They were eating with several other Hispanic friends when, Isabelle said, all of a sudden, she heard some kids chanting.
“Then you hear what they’re saying, and then they’re beating their hands against the tables,” she said. It got louder and louder: “Build a wall!”
“You look around, and half the cafeteria is doing it,” Isabelle said. She and others felt that it was directed toward her and the other Hispanic students. She ran to the bathroom in tears.
When Josie saw Isabelle run crying from the lunchroom, she began recording the chant on her phone.
“The kids, they seemed to be so happy and excited that they were saying this … and it was hurtful,” said Josie, who couldn’t hold back the tears. “It was so hard to look and just watch and not being able to do anything because I was afraid. … I was so scared.”
This is the first time both girls have shared their story with the media. They chose to talk because they and their families are hopeful that positive change is possible, even after something so negative.
Josie’s dad, Alex Ramon, has lived in Royal Oak since 1994 and says it’s always been a welcoming and progressive community. The city is part of Oakland County, Michigan, a county that voted 51% to 43% in favor of Hillary Clinton for president.
“I think what happened here is a learning experience,” said Alicia Ramon, who is married to Josie’s dad. The couple has been co-parenting with Josie’s biological mom since Josie was young.
“We have to figure out what to do, and I think we’re doing that. And if that somehow sends that message across the country and helps other districts and helps other parents and other students to go through this a little easier if you will, then, ‘Amen,’ that’s what I would hope, that something great comes from this.”
Josie said this is not the first time she has experienced racism at the middle school, which is predominantly white, over the last year and a half.
“I’ve had people make jokes about me and my culture,” Josie said. “They make jokes about Mexicans. They make jokes about blacks. And it’s disheartening, and it hurts me physically.”
Isabelle and her mom, who is a paraprofessional at Royal Oak Middle School, said they have also heard racially derogatory comments at the school.
The day of the “build a wall!” chant, a student called Isabelle “taco,” she said. “I started to cry again from that moment.”
A school telecast that went up on YouTube included a joke of the day, which on one occasion was about Mexicans, the girls said. The school acknowledged that it investigated that incident and subsequently removed the video.
Rose Castilla, Isabelle’s mom, shared another incident that she said occurred in a school hallway as she passed a student. “He said he could say the ‘n’ word because he has a black friend. I tapped him on the shoulder, and I said, ‘Nobody gets to say that word. No, that is unacceptable. Don’t say it again.’ “
Josie said she had reported incidents of racism in the past to counselors at the school but felt they were either ignored or dismissed as pranks. (A school spokesman said that whenever there has been an incident where a student felt unwelcome, the school responded, investigated and addressed the situation.)
So this time, Josie took out her phone and recorded what she witnessed, sending the video to her mom via text.
“I was angry,” Josie said. “And I just needed evidence so it wouldn’t be my word against theirs.”
“Build a wall,” she texted her mom with crying emojis under the video. “Mom, they were chanting it.”
Alicia Ramon said she was shocked and concerned when she saw Josie’s text. She sent the video privately to a few middle school parents. Another parent – not Alicia – shared it on Facebook.
Within hours, the video went viral and was viewed millions of times over the next few days.
Parents concerned about worldwide attention
The backlash toward the students doing the chanting began almost instantly. Many of the responses posted on social media were angry, threatening and “quite frankly sickening,” said Shawn Lewis-Lakin, superintendent of Royal Oak Schools.
“When that video went viral, it brought a lot of attention,” Lewis-Lakin said. “The attention that prompts us to grow and to improve is welcome attention. The attention that generated violent comments to the social media post, condemnations of the entire school and community, threats against the school and community brought an unwelcome level of attention that was very disruptive.”
Parents of children who were showcased in the video worried about their children’s safety; parents of children who were not in the video were also fearful because outsiders were angry at the school community for the “build a wall!” chant.
The school district superintendent made sure police were on campus to protect students and calm parents’ fears.
As for the children responsible, Lewis-Lakin said the school identified the students who did the chanting, notified their parents, talked with them and held them accountable. He would not say what disciplinary action was taken against them, citing student privacy policies.
Another type of backlash
There was also a growing feeling of some parents in the community that Josie had put the lives of students in danger by recording the video and that she should be held accountable.
“It was on Facebook and the parents’ PTA group. People were pointing the finger and saying she should be expelled and she should be prosecuted for endangering children,” Rose Castilla said. “I just felt sick to my stomach. That’s not OK.”
At school, Josie said, she became the focus of negative attention, instead of the students who did the chanting.
“When I walked into the room, people would walk out of the room for some reason. People would see me in the hallways and turn around and walk the other way,” she said. “I felt like an animal.”
Josie and her family also encountered a sentiment that she was making too much of the incident and that kids were just being kids.
“If they had been chanting ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ I would have nothing to say, absolutely nothing to say,” Alicia Ramon said. “They were just excited for their candidate, and I don’t have a problem with that.
“But what you can’t do,” she added, “is hurt someone or intimidate someone based on their race. You can’t infringe on someone else’s rights in order to have your speech be heard.”
“I empathize with parents,” Lewis-Lakin said. “There are parents who are concerned about the negative attention that has come to their children’s school.
“But whenever there’s an experience of a child that causes even one individual student to feel unwelcome or causes one individual student to question their value, it’s going to be a big deal,” he added. “And we’re going to respond, investigate, follow through, have accountability and make sure the students involved in those situations do not repeat them.”
Another controversy rocks the school: A noose
A week after the “build a wall” chant, another controversy rocked Royal Oak Middle School. This time, a noose was found in a boys’ bathroom at the school.
Lewis-Lakin, the superintendent, called the incident “profoundly troubling as a parent (and) as a community member.”
The student who placed the noose was swiftly identified and expelled, and all students at the school were addressed on the Monday following the Friday incident, he said.
“We made clear that … (students) all heard from us that every single one of them is valued and included and an important part of our community,” Lewis-Lakin said.
For Josie and Isabelle, the noose incident only heightened their anxiety.
“I was terrified. I was so scared. I was afraid that they’re going to hurt me or Isabelle,” Josie said.
Together for One Royal Oak
The back-to-back incidents have sparked a movement of mothers in this community who, along with Alicia Ramon, want to use the pain to bring positive change.
“We’re moms, and we want the best for our children, and that doesn’t mean just academic accomplishments,” said Danielle Atkinson, a mom of five. “That also means a society and community that’s supportive of who they are as individuals.”
Members of the group, named Together for One Royal Oak, said they are working with the school district, encouraging a review of the curriculum, more diversity training, mentoring programs for teachers and students and diversity in district hiring practices.
“We have a pretty homogenous staff in the district,” said Erin Case, a mom of two. “If you look at decades of research about representative bureaucracy in public schools, increasing diversity in the staff improves the outcomes for students, not only outcomes for minority students but all students because it contributes to diversity of thought.”
Added Carmen Wargel, a mom of two, “It’s important that we make clear that this isn’t who Royal Oak is. We are better than this.”
‘We’re going to build a plan moving forward’
The school district is in the process of surveying all students in grades K-12 about their school experiences, both good and bad, and consulting with local, state and national experts.
“We are mapping out where we’ve been with our professional development for staff and looking for gaps,” Lewis-Lakin said. “We’ve got great people coming to the table with us now to say, ‘Hey, we want to help.’ We’re listening to them. We’re taking their ideas, and we’re going to build a plan moving forward … so that we are that school community where there is no one who is ‘other.’ “
What does he hope Royal Oak will look like in five years?
“You’re going to need to stand in line, because people are going to be here to find out how you truly have a school district and schools that prepare students for being citizens of a global community where all students, the contributions of all persons, are not just valued but celebrated, not just welcomed but integrated into the fabric of what we do each and every day.”
This is welcome news to Josie but, unfortunately, comes too late. While Isabelle remains at Royal Oak Middle School, Josie felt so ostracized that she ultimately decided to withdraw and enroll in a private school.
“I couldn’t take it any longer,” Josie said. “And I feel badly every day that I left Isabelle behind.”
“Do you know what it’s like to pick up a child from school because they’re at the bathroom crying? And this is a straight-A student who excels academically,” Alicia Ramon said. “This is a kid that should be celebrated. I shouldn’t have to pick her up crying. There is something wrong in that equation.”
During our visit to Royal Oak, Josie finished her first week of classes at her new school. Alicia Ramon already sees the difference.
Join the conversation
“She was joking. She was funny. She was back to her usual self, a kid I hadn’t seen since this happened,” she said. “I feel like seeing a weight that was lifted off her shoulders.”
Josie says she likes her new school, even though she has to wear a uniform now and the homework load has increased. She feels safe and welcome, she says, two things she didn’t feel at Royal Oak Middle School.
And although the past six weeks have been incredibly painful and have resulted in a “huge cost,” she said she would do it all over again if necessary.
“I think if I had to go through this again to help everybody else who’s Mexican-American, I would do it a thousand, a million, a quadrillion more times, because I want everybody to be happy no matter what.”
Have there been any racial incidents in your school or community after the election? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.