At a youth forum for racial and social justice organized by County Executive Leggett last Wednesday afternoon, minority students voiced their frustration with bullying, discrimination, and resource disparities in classrooms and communities around Montgomery County.
Following a presentation from Leggett, 95.5 WPGC radio host Joe Clair opened the floor to student opinions, encouraging them to explore topics such as rising high school dropout rates, teen apathy for education, and obstacles on their path to college and career readiness.
Many youth attributed peer pressure, negative influences, and the need to ‘fit in’ as factors that made them or their peers consider dropping out from high school. Others stated that their friends who have dropped out often failed to recognize the consequences—a reduced chance at a self-sufficient and financially stable life, as Leggett described.
“I work at a $7.25 minimum wage job scrubbing dishes at a restaurant, but I do it as a step for college where I will eventually become a lawyer or a doctor,” said a current Blair senior, “but it’s sad to know that other members of my community, my community that I care deeply about, will lead very different lives.”
Several middle school students believed that bullying, lack of psychological and emotional support from teachers, as well as socioeconomic pressures often began to play harmful roles much earlier than assumed. Two eighth grade participants stated that they have friends who are teenage parents, and a few others felt ostracized from their school after revealing their inability to buy expensive shoes.
“I don’t want to see my friends struggle, because we are the future,” one student said. “There need to be some reforms at schools, but we also need to work at it really hard.”
“The biggest struggle we face is ourselves; we like to blame our environment but honestly it comes down to our own responsibility,” said Alex, a Blair alumnus and native of Silver Spring. “Not all of us are from good backgrounds, but we can’t resort to negativity.”
When thinking about their futures, several students described their fears about constantly battling stereotypes in education and employment. Others questioned the merits of standardized testing, claiming that one test such as the HSA should not determine a student’s eligibility to progress to the next academic level.
“I am worried about not getting into the college I want, the job I need, and that I won’t be able to support my family,” said one participant. “I don’t have good grades, and it feels like adults are always telling me I’m not going anywhere.”
In light of various instances of police brutality last year, several participants expressed their anger towards “the injustices that have touched on many lives in [their] community.” According to two speakers from Paint Branch High School, as minority students, their peers are often unjustly targeted by law enforcement.
“When you have an active police force, you are more likely to make a mistake,” responded Leggett. “We can’t end up categorizing all police, for the ones in Ferguson are not the same as ones in our community.” Leggett recounted a personal incident on the evening before an election in which he was verbally harassed by a park police officer after placing a campaign poster by the sidewalk. The officer apparently did not recognize the casually dressed County Executive. However, Leggett emphasized that the significance was not whether he was recognized, but the unwarranted disrespect.
“The negative impression will remain for the rest of lives. I will hold our police accountable,” he said.
The event was held at the Silver Spring Civic Center.