JaNay Dodson, a mother of a Inter-American Magnet School student, speaks at a Local School Council meeting on Nov. 6, 2023. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

LAKEVIEW — Teachers, parents and upper-grade students at Inter-American Magnet School will receive anti-bias training after a middle-schooler wore blackface as part of a Halloween costume last week.

The 60-minute training, provided by Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Student Protections, focuses on the theme of “belonging” and will be given to all teachers and seventh- and eighth-grade students, Principal Juan Carlos Zayas told parents during a local school council meeting Monday.

The school will also form a local school council sub-committee that will offer families a series of three workshops about addressing bias at home, Zayas said.

The school council meeting was called to address the Oct. 31 incident, in which a seventh-grade student came to school dressed as Madea, a Black grandmother character portrayed by Tyler Perry. The student wore blackface makeup the majority of the day, washing it off at some point in the afternoon, JaNay Dodson, a parent of another seventh-grader, previously told Block Club.

Dodson said her son talked to the classmate and told his mother he didn’t think the child was aware of the racist history of blackface, which includes non-Black performers in the mid-19th century wearing blackface in minstrel shows to mockingly portray enslaved Black people.

But parents said the incident was indicative of the school culture at Inter-American, a magnet school at 851 W. Waveland Ave. that was founded in 1975 by two North Side mothers who wanted a multilingual, multicultural school for English and Spanish speakers during a time when Lakeview was being gentrified.

“Those moms fought to build this school in the name of justice, and justice is what we need to represent,” said Margarita Rosa, a community representative on the local school council. “If there’s racism, we call it out. Because only if we call it out will it be solved.”

Inter-American Magnet School Principal Juan Carlos Zayas speaks at a Local School Council meeting on Nov. 6, 2023. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

In addition to the anti-bias trainings, Inter-American has consulted with social-emotional learning and school climate specialists from Chicago Public Schools and will work with them to address school culture throughout the year, Zayas said.

Inter-American will also take a school culture and climate survey at the middle and end of the academic year, Zayas said.

“It’s not a one-and-done thing,” Zayas said. “We are really looking at first finding out where we are, which is very apparent that we’re not where we need to be. … I’ll be honest with you, It’s going to take time.”

Victor Aguilar, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Inter-American, said he saw the student come into school in blackface about 9 a.m. and immediately sent him to the office and explained to him the costume was offensive. But the student did not wash the makeup off their face until that afternoon.

But Aguilar stressed that the student was unaware of the costume’s offensive nature and “did not have the malintent.”

“We made a mistake; I will call it as it is,” Aguilar said. “But to say action was not taken — I understand we could have acted sooner and more aggressively.”

A runner passes Inter-American Magnet School on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago

Dodson and other parents of Black children spoke at the meeting about how they felt their trust had been violated after repeated racist incidents at the school. Non-Black students have regularly called each other the N-word throughout the year, sometimes using it intentionally to provoke Dodson’s son, she said.

Dodson has also been the target of racism at the school.

In 2021, the school’s previous principal reported Dodson to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after she was seven minutes late picking up Braylin from school. A department investigator pulled Braylin out of class two days later, and another came to Dodson’s home to inspect it.

Other parents came forward to detail a “chaotic, toxic and divisive” culture at the school that included bullying, abuse and other mistreatment of their children. After weeks of pressure from parents, the principal resigned.  

Dodson called for anti-bias consultants and trainings to be administered from an external source not part of Chicago Public Schools.

“After this situation, my faith in admin to swiftly and properly address racial mico-aggressions has waned,” Dodson said.

Another mother, who said she is Afro-Latina, said Inter-American needs to improve its culture so it can welcome more racial diversity. The school has 15 Black students and no Black teachers, according to state data.

“My daughter has been going here for three years, and I’ve seen very few Black families,” the mother said. “That can have to do with recruitment, but if the environment is unwelcoming, you will not get those families here.”

Joanna Hou contributed.

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