ChiArts students protesting their administration outside of the Humboldt Park high school on March 3, 2022. Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago

HUMBOLDT PARK — Holding handmade signs that read “Do your job” and “Stop punishing victims,” hundreds of ChiArts students walked out of the the Humboldt Park high school to stage a protest late Thursday afternoon, accusing administrators of creating a “toxic” environment where students don’t feel protected from groping, among other concerns.

The Chicago High School for the Arts, known as ChiArts, is on the border of Humboldt Park and West Town at 2714 W. Augusta Blvd. The arts-focused school enrolls about 600 students from across the city, most of them Black and Hispanic, according to Chicago Public Schools.

Many of those students marched around the perimeter of the school Thursday to voice dismay and frustration over school leaders’ handling of a wide range of incidents in the past few years, saying students have inappropriately touched other students and a beloved teacher was fired. In chants and remarks, the protesting students said they don’t feel safe at the school with the current administration.

“We come here to be passionate, we come here to be ourselves, and we are under attack by an administration that fears us. Enough is enough already. We need to use our voice, use our arts and fight back,” said 17-year-old senior Isabella Reyes, student body president at ChiArts.

The ChiArts student protest on March 3, 2022. Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago

The school’s principal, Teresa Milsap, didn’t return calls Thursday evening. Milsap was the founding principal of ChiArts when the school opened in 2009. She left for the East Coast a few years later and then returned in 2019 as principal, according to the school’s website.

In an email obtained by Block Club, Milsap told parents Friday they were aware of the allegations and working with district leaders to investigate students’ claims, “and provide our students with supports, additional safety measures, and a space to voice their concerns.” The district also is arranging additional training Monday for faculty and staff to ensure they understand their responsibilities “as mandated reporters of incidents related to sexual harassment or assault,” Milsap wrote.

Jose Ochoa, president of the ChiArts Foundation and a founding executive and artistic director of the school, declined to answer questions at the school Thursday. Other administrators, including Artistic Director Tina Boyer Brown, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. CPS officials also didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

In a joint statement Friday, Ochoa and board Chair Ronald B Grais did not address the allegations and declined comment on personnel issues, but said “the School has taken the necessary and appropriate steps to ensure there are no gaps in learning.” They directed questions to CPS.

“The ChiArts Foundation supports students’ desire to voice their opinions in a safe manner,” Ochoa and Grais said. “We also stand in support of the School’s administration and the actions they are taking to ensure the safety of students and the entire ChiArts community.”

Hundreds of ChiArts students marched around the perimeter of the school during the protest. Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago

The unrest at the school “exploded” in December, when administrators fired a favorite teacher of many students, said three ChiArts teachers who asked to be anonymous for fear of retribution. It’s unclear why the teacher was fired.

After the firing, students started to feel like their voices weren’t being heard, the teachers said. When they raised other concerns with administration about goings-on at the school, particularly around student sexual misconduct, like when a student allegedly groped other students in leotards or other students followed their peers into bathroom stalls, they felt they were being “gas-lit,” one teacher said.

One student said at a protest earlier this month they were sexually assaulted by another student at the school, according to the teachers. The accused student was escorted to the school’s “peace room” while the victimized student was suspended, the teachers said.

Administrators “don’t see [the students] in any meaningful way,” one of the teachers said. “They feel like the students are treated as objects for the publicity of the school, to have Black and Brown students there, but not to listen to their voices or hear their concerns.”

With students in “survival mode,” educators are struggling to teach, the teachers said.

ChiArts is structured differently than other CPS high schools. It is a contract school, meaning it is funded by the district and private donors, and students get an academic and arts education. The school’s academic teachers are supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, but the teaching artists are not and can be fired with impunity.

“The teachers they love don’t have the protections they want us to have,” one of the teachers said.

Like the protesting students, many teaching artists don’t feel supported by the school’s administration and fear retribution for speaking out, the teacher said. In the past month, 15 teachers have left the school, further disrupting an already turbulent school environment, one said.

“It’s painful in many ways. I pray I don’t run into anyone other than my colleagues or students when I walk into the building,” the other teacher said.

During Thursday’s protest, one student posed a question to the crowd, asking, “Our student rights are that we should feel. I don’t feel safe. Who else doesn’t feel safe?”

Dozens of students’ hands shot up.

“We are here today because we want our voices to be heard,” the student said. “Everyone on this sidewalk is here because we want change and we have done this far too many times. … We are children. We should not be doing administration’s work.”

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_