Students using Instagram to reveal what it is like to be 'Black at' private high schools
(CNN) -- In high school, Aigner Picou was an honor student, held a job, led a club, participated in community service and played an instrument. But she says her college counselor told her, a Black student at a private school, that a college with a more than 50% acceptance rate would still be a reach for her.
Now an alumna of the Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut, she is watching as more and more stories like hers are being shared publicly.
As protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks have filled US cities, Black students and alumni of some of the country's most prestigious private high schools have taken to social media to share their experiences of being Black at majority White elite private schools. By bringing together the stories of current and former students, the "Black at" Instagram pages show that racism and discrimination in such institutions spans states and generations.
The more than 40 pages across nearly a dozen states share posts, most often anonymous, that students, alumni and even grandchildren of alumni submit through forms and direct messaging. The administrators of the pages said that, other than vetting the posts, they minimize editing and maximize how many are shared publicly.
Josh Odoom, an alumnus of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and administrator of the "Blackatwfs" page, said the grievances being shared online about his alma mater aren't new. But he hopes airing them in public can bring change.
"Social media gives us the ability to apply pressure that we otherwise wouldn't be able to because we don't control the endowment," he said. "Our voices are making a difference online even though they weren't important on campus."
"We see the Black@WFS account as a moment of reckoning for our school and for what it felt like and feels like to go to school here," a spokesman for the school said, adding that though social distancing adds challenges the school has begun listening sessions with students and alumni of color.
While the pages have been energized by recent attention on racial injustice in the US and provide a new space for students to connect, the content is familiar for many generations.
"For black people this is nothing new," Picou, who graduated in 2010 and is now an administrator of the "BlackatLoomis" page, said. "We've kinda been talking about this and fighting against this for hundreds of years."
The stories being told
Though the stories shared on the platform show the individualized experiences of the Black students who submitted them, they are united by common themes.
Many Black students and alumni shared stories of working hard and then overachieving to get into competitive private high schools, only to be told by white staff and students they were only admitted because of their race. And some of those high achieving students were then told as they prepared to leave the school that they would not get into the colleges they were qualified for.
Posts often spoke of racial slurs both used in instances of casual indifference and menacing vitriol. And the students and faculty who used the language often saw little to no consequences.
And many shared instances of being rejected from the school community.
Chenelle Jones and Jada Howard say the weight of running the "BlackatDeerfieldofficial" page for the academy in Massachusetts is taxing. That is especially true because as Black alumni they "understand the pain echoing through the accounts," Howard said.
They recounted stories about Black students being referred to as a "little gang" because of they had similar hairstyles.
Head of School at Deerfield Academy John Austin said in a statement to CNN that reading the stories on the "Blackatdeerfieldofficial" page has been painful.
"We appreciate those who have spoken with passion and courage to share their truth and challenge us to move forward," Austin said. "We are looking closely at our existing school policies surrounding our students' conduct and citizenship; enhancing curricula that focuses on equitable justice; and for the coming school year, scheduling regular all-school forums on issues of civil and human rights."
'I want to be able to see that change'
The number of entries on the "Black at" pages continues to grow as more students and alumni share their stories.
"I know this because I still have friends from that time and we still talk about what happened while we were there," Picou said, adding that the page quickly got traction. "It was like people were waiting for this page and waiting to have a space where they could share their stories and not feel like they were not going to be ignored."
Many of the page administrators told CNN they hope to amplify voices that have long been ignored and hold school administrations accountable for discrimination and racism that students feel they did not adequately address.
"Our goal is to have a public response because we often hear the private ones," Skye Jackson, a current student at Episcopal High School in Virginia, said. "The experiences we are hearing have so often been swept under the rug and into the darkness."
Amy John-Terry, a student who runs the "Blackatehs" page with Jackson, said she hopes to bridge the divide between White and Black students in her school by sharing an often-ignored truth of how different their experiences are at school.
Episopal High School said it is holding listening sessions to understand the Black experience at the school and working with alumni to establish a Black alumni network, among other initiatives.
"The stories shared on social media as well as directly with us are heart-rending and painful for all in our community to hear, but we are grateful to those who courageously share their experiences. We are listening, and we will continue to listen and engage, as what's being said is vital to hear as we take actions to better support our Black and African American students," Head of School Charley Stillwell said in a statement to CNN .
While some pages are only serving as a space for being heard, others are reaching out to the schools and asking for concrete changes many with petitions and recommendations to improve the schools for students of color.
By way of the "BlackatLoomis" page, Picou called on the Loomis Chaffee School to provide transparency on the racial breakdowns of everyone at the school from students to the board of trustees. The school responded by saying it is working to gather that information, she said.
The Loomis Chaffee School did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
Others want, at least as a first step, for the school administrations to just sit down and begin a conversation about the experiences of people of color at the school.
"We really just want the administration to work with us and surprisingly they haven't reached out to us at all," Jones, the Deerfield alum said. "These were people that were my teachers and my coaches -- people I interacted with on a daily basis."
"We strongly encourage, support, and will continue to facilitate forums and discussions, such as the one that took place on June 25 with Deerfield Academy Alumni of Color," Austin, the head of the school, said in his statement to CNN.
And the students and alumni often said their love for the schools makes the need to make improvements even more important.
"We just want Deerfield to be a better place for people who look like us," said Howard. "We want to be loved and accepted by the place we call home."
Responses vary from racist comments to community building
As the pages continue to grow, they have garnered more responses from both schools and the public.
Atlanta International School Head of School Kevin J. Glass said in a statement to CNN the school is built around "principles of mutual respect in a diverse community" and will take actions to address the school not yet living up to its aspirations.
More than half of the students at the school identify as Black, Asian or LatinX, Glass said.
Exeter director of equity and inclusion Stephanie Bramlett said in a statement on Instagram that changes are already underway including anti-racism training offered for faculty and staff and changes to racial climate assessment, committee structures and responding to community feedback underway.
"This list is not exhaustive and will grow and become more specific," Bramlett said. "Exeter is committed to racial equity and lasting change."
The response from students has been mixed.
When they started their page, Jackson and John-Terry said they were overloaded with racist comments toward Black people. The comments brought Jackson to tears.
And within the first two days, they received about 15 fake submissions intending to undermine their efforts, they said.
But, they said, the bad is far exceeded by the good. Students, alumni and faculty have all reached out to say how their eyes have been opened to these experiences and to ask how they can help the page's efforts.
And among the page administrators, a community has started to form. Black former and current students in states all over the US have gathered on a group thread, John-Terry said.
They keep each other going with words of encouragement, share resources and offer support in every way they can, she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Skye Jackson, a student at Episcopal High School in Virginia.
The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.