Your donation supports the McLean High School's independent, award-winning news publication.
Signs of Change
McLean students advocate for social justice
March 30, 2022
If you swipe past this Snapchat story, you don’t support people of color. If you don’t sign this online petition, you’re perpetuating systemic racism. You must post this black square on your Instagram page to show that you’re a true ally. We can see who doesn’t, by the way.
At McLean, a combination of growing social movements and the easy access to activism has led to an uptick in student advocacy on a local level. Whether it be through social media or real-world civic engagement such as protests or lobbying, McLean students have expressed a variety of responses to local social justice issues.
In 2020, the school board revised Regulation 2234 to give students in grades 7-12 one partial school day per year to participate in civic engagement activities. The policy ensured that students would not have to face consequences of an unexcused absence because they missed school for a civic engagement event. The following year, the Virginia legislature passed Senate Bill 1439, expanding the FCPS policy statewide and making it a full-day excused absence.
“Ever since the school board passed the ability for students to become active participants in their community, we’ve seen a spike in [student advocacy],” McLean Principal Ellen Reilly said. “[Student activism] really started in 2018 with [a walkout for] the [Parkland High School] shooting down in Florida… Now we have more clubs that are centered around students’ issues about race, religion and identity.”
Organizations such as the Black Student Union (BSU), Students Advocating for Equality (SAFE) club and Muslim Student Association (MSA) are working to bring more attention to the issues minorities face. Despite the growing popularity of these clubs, challenges persist in the region. Obstacles include racism, performative activism with the influence of social media and the struggle to circumvent rules and regulations for in-school advocacy.
In June 2020, hundreds of McLean students, teachers and parents marched to protest the murder of George Floyd. The march was covered by local news and featured students who gave speeches about race at McLean.
“I talked about my experiences with racism and being exposed to police brutality at a young age,” said senior Zora Rodgers, who spoke at the rally.
Soon after the march, Rodgers started the SAFE club to address racial issues within the community by hosting informational meetings and donation drives.
“The club strives to educate the public about certain social justice issues, whether it’s racial justice or current events,” Rodgers said. “It’s [made to] dispel ignorance.”
SAFE is not the only club to have had such an impact on the McLean community, as many similar organizations have been brought into the spotlight this year.
In the fall of 2021, junior Jasmine Andresol formed the BSU to create a safe space for Black students and take action on issues involving racism at school. On Feb. 2, 2022, members of the club painted the rock in honor of Black History Month. It featured phrases such as “I’m Black and proud” and “BLM.” Around 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, vandals defaced the rock with “ALM,” meaning “All Lives Matter,” a term coined to counter the BLM movement.
The Highlander posted an Instagram picture of the rock the night it was defaced, and it quickly garnered attention across the county, reaching over 9,300 different accounts. The photo was shared over 1,500 times, with more than 250 comments both in support and defense of the vandals.
“I wish all the racists at McLean would keep their mouths shut, ears open and hands to themselves,” one comment said. “Not a single person wants to hear them or their bigotry.”
Other students suggested that the All Lives Matter movement wasn’t necessarily racist and that the vandalism wasn’t an act of hate. A majority of these comments were deleted by the posters themselves because of backlash.
“I wasn’t surprised about the vandalism because I know the type of people that go to McLean,” said junior Adona Amanuel, an officer for the BSU. “I expected some form of retaliation to the rock, and it unfortunately happened quicker than I expected.”
For those who support Black Lives Matter, especially those who painted the rock, it was an emotional experience.
“I was angry, and I was dissatisfied,” Andresol said. “I was angry at the way that there could be one person out of all these 2,250 people in the school that doesn’t believe that Black lives matter.”
While racially charged incidents in FCPS are rare, they have the power to spark large-scale movements.
On Dec. 14, 2021, Ekran Mohamed, a Muslim sophomore at Fairfax High School, was allegedly called racial slurs, assaulted and had her hijab forcibly removed by a classmate.
Just days after the incident, schools across Fairfax County held walkouts in support of Mohamed. Though McLean did not hold a walkout, some McLean students attended rallies at other schools. Later that day, McLean’s MSA released a statement on Instagram about Mohamed’s situation. The post quickly caught people’s attention, gaining over 16,500 likes, 18,500 shares and roughly 500 comments—many of which were deleted by the MSA because of hateful language.
“We were able to organize quickly. It was a show of power that everyone can stand united, not just Muslim students, against racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia,” said freshman Zakareya Hamed, president of McLean’s MSA. “It was a really empowering moment for all of us.”
Later that week, a group of 21 MSAs across the county, including McLean’s, posted a joint statement on Fairfax High School’s MSA Instagram. The statement denounced the police’s investigation, which ruled that the incident was not a hate crime because it reported no evidence of being motivated by race, religion or ethnicity. The MSAs’ joint statement argued that the walkouts were intended to spur more long-term change, not just punish the offenders. Though not as widely spread as the McLean MSA’s post, it still got over 1,500 likes.
Since the incident at Fairfax High School, the McLean MSA has worked to implement concrete change, including collaborating with the McLean administration to address how Muslims are depicted in history lessons.
“We sent out [guidelines] to the history department on how World History 1 should portray Islam, because there are a lot of misconceptions that we were able to bring to the teachers’ attention,” Hamed said. “We’re going to fight these biases to portray the truth.”
The social studies department reviewed the guidelines and agreed to alter the wording of certain lessons during the unit on Islam.
Although student-run organizations have made an impact on the local community, they still face resistance from peers, social media and the administration. The clubs are also tasked with addressing microaggressions—indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination.
“Students are always saying the N-word, associating themselves with people who have been outwardly racist or are racists themselves,” Amanuel said. “In general, McLean fosters a lot of racial hostility, whether it be colorism, the enforcement of negative stereotypes, saying slurs [or] making fun of Black people and their culture.”
Jokes targeted against the cultural background of a person are may not be overtly discriminatory. Still, they reinforce racist stereotypes against minorities.
“I think at this point, pretty much all Asians have experienced the classic small-eyes joke or your-food-smells-bad joke,” said senior Songhan Pang, the co-president of McLean’s Asian American Association.
MEMBERSHIP — Clubs at McLean have faced challenges gaining members from diverse backgrounds. A common misconception is that cultural clubs only exist for those that identify with that culture.
“These groups are meant to not only bring together that certain cultural community within the school, but raise awareness so that other people of different perspectives can get to understand them more,” Pang said.
Club names sometimes suggest that only students of certain backgrounds should join.
“It’s been a constant struggle of [gaining new members] to understand different perspectives,” Pang said.
Rules and Regulations
RULES AND REGULATIONS — FCPS and state regulations prevent the McLean administration from being able to fully support student activists’ goals.
“Sometimes I’ll get individuals that come in and say, ‘Hey, I [want to organize something for my club],’ but usually, you have to have support behind you because there’s so many guidelines,” Reilly said. “[For example,] Fairfax County doesn’t allow people to collect money for a group…because people were using kids to collect money and nobody knew where the money was going.”
Students often feel frustrated with the administration’s lack of response to racial incidents, but strict regulations bar school officials from revealing actions they’ve taken to address these kinds of issues or extend support to those harmed.
“I feel like sometimes I deflate because there’s so many rules involved, but we do have guidelines to protect students,” Reilly said. “On my part, I have to go and ask questions about the rules…then I can bring back everybody and say, ‘OK, here is where we can work within our parameters.’”
Though the McLean administration has a limited arsenal to directly support students, Reilly has found ways to support groups indirectly.
“Sometimes [I end up] connecting [students] to another group that could help get their idea done or with a person who will help share their ideas, like the PTSA,” Reilly said.
Still, groups such as the McLean MSA have successfully worked with the administration to promote inclusivity. Recently, they collaborated to create space for Muslim students to pray every Friday.
“[The administration] is why we have Friday prayers now,” Hamed said. “They gave us a room and mats, and those things are not easy to get.”
PERFORMATIVE ACTIVISM — Social media usage among high schoolers has transformed true activism with intent for change into a series of trends, such as #BlackOutTuesday, which went viral in 2020. On June 2, millions of Instagram users posted a black screen on their accounts to stand in solidarity with Black users. Ultimately, the trend amounted to no change and actually hindered the flow of important information about nationwide protests.
Although these posts may be detrimental, they are often the easiest, most accessible option for teenagers who want to make an impact on their community. When students are met with regulations and other challenges that make advocacy difficult to carry out, they often resort to social media as a quick, rule-free medium of activism. Some believe that social media activism isn’t necessarily dangerous when coupled with other behaviors.
“An Instagram post on your story doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person,” Rodgers said. “It’s about what you do after that, because social media is definitely how most of us become aware about different situations.”
Along with its accessibility, social media has created an overwhelming pressure on users that results in a fear that they will not be seen as an ally to progressive causes due to their silence on a topic. As a result, certain issues deteriorate into trends, with the genuine activism behind the causes being cast aside in favor of easily shareable posts.
While those using social media to spread information are usually well-intentioned, social media tends to value aesthetics over content. For complex issues such as systemic racism, social media has led to visually pleasing infographics being shared more than posts that go into more depth about nuanced issues.
In a high school environment, where the opinions of others—for better or for worse—often have a large effect on how people act, it is common that students feel the need to be constantly engaged in social awareness.
“I think there’s a certain pressure to be someone who you’re not, especially in high school,” Rodgers said. “If there’s a certain issue that affects people you know and care about…there’s an inclination to speak out. With Black Lives Matter, there was a ‘silence is violence’ code that was going around, so people felt obligated to post about [BLM], even though they didn’t want to make [effective] changes.”
Social media allows people to simply appear like advocates for justice through shallow online actions. Empty actions don’t go unnoticed, however, and they have become a a target of stringent criticism.
“As marginalized communities, we see this often. Those who pretend to be allies. Those who pretend to want to change,” McLean counselor Amber Simpkins said. “These disingenuous actions actually hurt the movement more than anything else. True activism comes from the heart, and it is a desire to see true and lasting change. Performative activism is empty words and actions meant to only appease the oppressed.”
Though McLean students and clubs are working to make an impact on the community, they still see room for progress. To them, change starts with creating opportunities to help people fight for progress and to amplify underrepresented voices that have been advocating for change.
“It’s…a lot of sitting back and listening to those who are [marginalized] and doing what you can to rework unconscious biases you may have,” Amanuel said. “You have to take a step back and fill in when asked but always do your best to make sure that you as an individual are doing all you can to unlearn any forms of bias or prejudice you have.”
Members of the McLean administration are aware of their role in contributing to student advocacy, and students are constantly becoming more aware of the impact their voices can have.
“We need to support our students. We do that by making sure every student feels heard, seen and valued,” Simpkins said. “When acts of racism happen, it must be addressed openly and swiftly. It cannot be tolerated, and we need to provide the space for students affected by those racist acts to heal.”