A Virtual Safe Space

“It was something that we as students never knew we needed.”

Editor’s note: This article contains one mention of a racial slur being used by a white person. 

Just like their classes, Chicago Public School high school students took their concerns online last summer as the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings incited more people to speak up on injustices however possible with the limitations of the pandemic.

Students at schools across the city, including Back of the Yards College Prep (BOYCP), created anonymous Instagram accounts documenting the testimonies of students who experienced incidents of sexual assault and racism. 

“I honestly think that this is a really great way to give students agency and a voice and space without necessarily having to rely on administration at all or even the school space, we’re all digital,” said Arturo Ballesteros, who graduated from BOYCP in 2020 and is part of its Local School Council (LSC).  

These accounts, often with handles such as “Black at,” or “BIPOC,” became more popular at many universities and high schools across the nation during the summer of 2020, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked uprisings and conversations about race and racism within educational institutions.  

While some of the accounts have not been active since last summer, the testimonies come from current students, alum and sometimes staff and parents. Other posts include calls to action, surveys and critiques on school-specific events.

Above is an interactive map of CPS schools that have created student-run anonymous accounts. These accounts were started by students during the summer of 2020 to provide a virtual space for each other to testify on experiences with sexual assault and racism within their schools.  

“There is a lot that’s swept under the rug in order to keep up with this image of diversity and  acceptance and a lot of it doesn’t really get out,” said Cassandra Plascencia, a graduating senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School. 

She said that when concerns regarding racism reached the administration, nothing was done about it. 

In one instance a few years ago, Plascencia said a Black student confronted the dean about a white student who said “n****” during class. “The response from admin was, ‘Well what if you call them a cracker or a paddywagon?’” said Plascencia. “The first response was to just justify or validate that person’s argument rather than addressing it.”

At BOYCP, a group of students, mostly upperclassmen, created an iMessage group chat as an initial space to discuss and work on different issues. The owner of the page, who asked to remain anonymous for their safety, said, We also realized that we became the go-to students to go to when someone was trying to initiate any student-led initiative that would empower movements.”

They saw other schools such as Walter Payton and Jones College Prep creating BIPOC accounts and decided to start one at their school. 

The owner of the page said that prior to creating the account the main issues that were brought up “circle the idea of student under-representation and how teachers, admin and staff overall had more power within the school system in terms of the finalized word within decisions.” 

Along with students having the power and the space to speak up, the owner also mentioned they wanted to ensure that “admin doesn’t sugarcoat or manipulate certain events or certain meetings to curve our overall goal,” they said regarding their goal of increasing student voice.

 “We were seeing first hand [that] so many of our classmates did not care about racism or any of the horrible things that were happening to Black people and other people of color last summer,” said Atiya Chiphe, who runs their school’s account along with Jade Wordlaw at Walter Payton Magnet High School where they are both juniors.  

“We got a lot of support and a lot of engagement especially in the beginning because it was something that we as students never knew we needed,” added Wordlaw who explained that it was shocking to see these stories coming from alumni and staff as well

An anonymous statement posted by  a former student at Walter Payton details distrust in their school administration. Students and other members of the school  community have voiced their concerns on various issues through student run anonymous accounts.

Some accounts have also engaged their followers in CPS-wide issues such as the conversation on removing school resource officers (SROs) from schools last summer.  

Students brought up their concerns during the LSC votes and 17 schools managed to vote SRO’s out of their schools as of August 2020 — BOYCP being one of them. According to a Block Club Chicago article, 31 schools have now reduced their police forces while seven have eliminated their presence entirely.  

“Stuff like this could just go over their head and they’re just like ‘everything is fine,’” said Ballesteros in regards to the LSC’s awareness of the anonymous student testimonials. “So the more we bring this to the attention of the LSC the more they’re going to be taking it into account,” he said. 

A call to action posted by the @blackatwhitneyoung student-run account asks students to share their thoughts on school resource officers. CPS high school students created a space to share their thoughts and concerns through anonymous instagram accounts.

When asked if she has seen any changes in the way the administration responds to student concerns, Plascencia mentioned the recent case of former Whitney Young physical education teacher and girls cross country coach, Robert Geiger.

An article by the Chicago Sun-Times from May revealed decades of complaints raised by various students who experienced uncomfortable interactions with Geiger but felt unheard by the administration. These experiences were finally brought to light by Geiger’s estranged daughter on social media. 

Sexual assault accusations have been a known issue within the CPS system as detailed by the Chicago Tribune 2018 series which revealed a lack of transparency and poor handling of sexual assault misconduct cases.  

“It may seem like they’re [the school’s administration] taking action already but they should have taken action back when it was already coming out earlier so I haven’t really seen much change,” said Plascencia.

“Obviously there are rules you have to follow but if the rules require you to limit the voice of students, that really showcases how this problem isn’t only in BOYCP but it’s a system problem and showcases how the CPS system is flawed,” shared the owner of the @boycp.bipoc account regarding their school’s administration. “Our school may be the example of the outcome of a bigger problem,” they added.

Many students have felt dissatisfied with how their administrations have handled issues in their school or voiced a lack of transparency. These platforms have offered a way to put these testimonies in one place. 

In an email statement responding to student claims, James Gherardi with the CPS communications team said, “The district believes in student empowerment and student voice, and while we are disheartened to hear of negative experiences, we applaud students who engage and amplify these critical issues. CPS’ greatest strength lies in its diversity and we remain wholly committed to working with schools and students to ensure their voices are heard and concerns are addressed.” 

At some schools such as BOYCP the students leading the accounts are graduating but looking for the accounts to continue under the management of current students. 

Plascencia said, “I would like to see students’ reports and issues that come up taken more seriously, actually going through a process”

Gherardi mentioned progress that CPS has made regarding bias-based harm, including a district town hall held on May 27, 2021, “To discuss the district’s approach to better prevent and address bias-based harm,” which created the Transforming Bias-Based Harm Guidebook, which can be found here.

The policies described in the guidebook will be instituted in the upcoming school year. However, the policy changes don’t include changes to the reporting process at CPS as investigations will still be conducted by school principals or the Office of Student Protections. 

“I think the end goal really is to just raise awareness of these issues that are happening,” said Vic Mercado, a student from BOYCP. “Especially for the underclassmen who are coming to the school or that will be going to the school. And we want to make sure that people really take off their rose-colored glasses.” 




Header image by Bridget Killian