‘Speaking up is not what they want’: Students, graduates speak out about racist patterns at FHS

Fredericton High School made headlines in September when some of their Grade 12 students wore "gangsta" themed outfits for picture day. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

Warning: This story contains strong language.

It is almost a month since Fredericton High School made headlines when some of their Grade 12 students wore “gangsta”-themed outfits for picture day this year.

In the weeks that followed, new incidents and disappointing responses left current FHS students and graduates, like Savannah Thomas, frustrated.

“[FHS’] mission statement talks about inclusion and diversity and respect and this and that,” said Thomas. “But you as educators aren’t respecting the voices of the students.”

What happened at FHS this month?

On Oct. 1, Bex Dumontet, another graduate of FHS who now goes to Concordia University, saw a viral post about how the school mishandled Truth and Reconciliation Day. She was vocal on social media after the picture day incident and was upset to see what else was happening at her alma mater.

“It’s just really disappointing,” said Dumontet.

The student who made the viral post was 17-year-old Theo Dawson.

He said highlights of the day included playing the national anthem before any mention of Truth and Reconciliation Day, not holding a moment of silence and playing a Youth for Christ advertisement after a two-minute video on residential schools.

“It really made it clear to me that the school wasn’t taking this seriously and that this wasn’t going to be a day to reflect,” said Dawson.

Things escalated at a student-led walk-out that afternoon. About 100 to 200 students gathered outside to peacefully protest New Brunswick’s decision to not formally recognize Truth and Reconciliation Day.

Theo Dawson, a 17-year-old Fredericton High School student, made a viral post calling out Fredericton High School for its handling of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. (Submitted: Theo Dawson)

Dawson described how students gathered to talk about the racism that Black, Indigenous and people of colour faced at FHS, as well as antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia and ableism.

The principal, Stephanie Underhill Tomilson, came out to address the students who, according to Dawson, were interested to hear what she had to say.

“My personal belief is that she went out there trying to gain control back of the situation,” said Dawson.

The principal then asked if anyone was willing to speak and Dawson said after a few seconds, no one came forward. He said this was likely because the subject of the day was residential schools, a traumatic topic for Indigenous students.

An Indigenous Grade 10 student asked the principal why she wasn’t making a statement, and Dawson said the principal accused the student of raising her voice.

“This was a white woman in a position of power talking to an Indigenous woman who was passionate about the kind of oppression that she was going through at the hands of this school and all she had to say was, ‘you’re raising your voice at me,’” said Dawson.

Dawson posted a series of his reactions to the day on his personal Instagram account. On Monday, he was suspended for five days because one of the posts included “falsehoods” and “disrespectful or inappropriate language.”

Dawson said the post he was suspended for read: “I hate this school, I hate it so fucking much, this is terrible — let me out. Fuck the admin, fuck the teachers, fuck the students, fuck literally everyone in this building.”

He said he regrets the strong language and apologized, saying he posted it out of anger, not activism.

After speaking out, Dawson received support from current and past students of FHS. Some shared their stories of racism in the school with Dawson, who posted them to his Instagram.

A “Break the Barrier” protest is set for Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. on the FHS football field.

Racism on picture day

On school picture day, Sept. 18, 70 to 80 Grade 12 students organized a theme day where they dressed up as “gangstas.”

Photographs from the day showed white students wearing bandanas, gold chains, braiding and twisting their hair and holding up gang signs.

“I was fine with the bandanas and the jeans and the wife-beaters and stuff like that, ” said Thomas, who is now a first-year at the University of New Brunswick. “But, it was with the cornrows and the hair twists and the gold jewellery and then throwing out the gang signs — those things took it too far.”

Thomas said she was disappointed by the incident but not surprised. She was most shocked that teachers didn’t do anything while it was happening.

“I know that if I was a teacher there I probably would have been like, ‘no, this is not happening.’ And nothing seemed to happen, so that was kind of disheartening,” said Thomas.

Roxanne Knight, a fourth-year student at St. Thomas University, said Fredericton High School students mocked Black culture on their school picture day. (Rachel Smith/AQ)

Roxanne Knight, a fourth-year student at St. Thomas University, said it was problematic that some people and news organizations referred to the picture day events as “cultural appropriation.”

“I don’t see it as cultural appropriation because this doesn’t reflect Black culture,” said Knight.

She sees what the students did on picture day as mocking Black culture and imitating a caricature of what white people think Black culture is.

Response from FHS

The principal of FHS gave a formal response to picture day in a CBC article published on Sept. 21.

She wrote, “I do apologize to all of those FHS families and community members we have offended.”

(Submitted: Olivia Rowinski)

Olivia Rowinski, FHS grad and current UNB student, was one of the students who posted about the initial incident on picture day. She said her email to the principal got a watered-down response.

“The fact that now there’s been two incidents in the last two weeks that have done harm to students — it’s quite upsetting,” said Rowinski.

Growing up, she experienced microaggressions at school and felt like educational institutions were built for white students.

“It’s kind of a common student experience for students of colour to just feel isolated,” she said.

Rowinski sent an email to Education Minister Dominic Cardy, but she hasn’t received a response.

Thomas emailed the FHS principal offering to talk to current students.

“I have done presentations, just talking about racism and cultural appropriation and sharing my story in schools before,” said Thomas.

She thought as a past FHS student and a person of colour, she would be the perfect person to get through to students.

Thomas received no response to her email, so she sent a follow-up on Wednesday. She asked if any teacher showed interest in her presentations, and that she was willing to do it for any grade.

“The problem isn’t just Grade 12, it’s FHS as a whole,” said Thomas.

Savannah Thomas, a first-year student at the University of New Brunswick, was disappointed to see Fredericton High School students wear “gangsta” themed costumes, but she’s not surprised. (Rachel Smith/AQ)

She also emailed four vice-principals and got one response, who referred her back to the principal. On Wednesday evening, the principal replied saying that she appreciated Thomas’ offer and would keep it in mind, which Thomas understood to be a long way of saying no.

“It’s been made very clear in the past few weeks that speaking up is not what they want,” she said.

In the principal’s email to Thomas, she said that FHS is forming a committee of students and faculty in response to the picture day incident. Thomas asked if she could be part of the committee, but so far hasn’t received a response.

“I think it just goes to show that they’re not ready to hear what their school is actually like,” said Thomas. “That, to me, just boils down to the fact that it’s a privileged white school.”

When looking at situations like picture day and Truth and Reconciliation Day, Thomas sees white educators and white people trying to silence people of colour.

“The impression that I’m getting and what they’re giving off is that they just want to sweep things under the rug,” said Thomas.

Bex Dumontet, right, who is a graduate of Fredericton High School and now goes to Concordia University, was disappointed by how the school mishandled Truth and Reconciliation Day. (Submitted: Bex Dumontet)

Dumontet finished her first three years of high school in New Orleans, where she was used to having candid conversations about race and ancestral trauma.

Coming to Fredericton, she said she couldn’t find many people to continue having these conversations with. She would like to see more people of colour presenting on a variety of topics in different fields at FHS.

“You’re going to have to listen to those voices who have been suppressed by society in general,” said Dumontet.

Dumontet wrote an email to her former guidance counsellor at the school and received a response that he was sorry she was affected by this and they were continuing to have conversations with students. She was disappointed by, what she considered to be, a lacklustre response.

She heard from current students at the school there was a 20-minute homeroom discussion following picture day.

Knight would like to see a major intervention at FHS. Moving from Jamaica to Fredericton for university, she was shocked at the blatant racism that was going on at the high school next to STU.

Knight thinks Black people shouldn’t be the sole educators of white students in these situations. Instead, she said the effort to educate is up to the individual and it is good to have uncomfortable conversations.

“It’s not fixed overnight, but major steps need to be made in order to make change in this society,” said Knight.

On Friday, The Aquinian called FHS to request a statement from the principal but she was unavailable. The Aquinian left her a message and has not received a response at the time of publication.