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‘You’re not from here’: Derby grad discusses her view of racism in high school

This story is part two of a series delving into racism and diversity within the Derby community (read part one here). This second piece focuses on Michelle Rico, an English teacher at Olathe Public Schools and the daughter of Col. Michael Dillard. Rico, who graduated in 2008, talks about her experiences as a black student attending Derby High School.

Michelle Rico, Col. Michael Dillard’s daughter, attended Derby High School for just two years. During those two years, she faced some of the most difficult experiences of her life.

Rico had attended school in Georgia, Japan and other places before her family moved to Derby. Those schools tended to be more diverse and inclusive.

Her first day at Derby High School was a shock.

“I walked into the lunchroom and saw that everyone had separated themselves,” Rico said. “I had never seen something like that. I was very upset, and went to the bathroom and cried about it.”

“That was just the beginning of noticing a lot of things that would be different.” 

Rico was immediately bothered by the new environment she was in. As time went on, she decided to tell her mom about the students being racially divided. Her mom asked about it at the high school.

“She went into the school for something else, and she asked if this is a thing that happens, the kids separating themselves,” Rico said. “They said, ‘Yeah, it’s always been like that. Everyone sits with their friends.’ They didn’t acknowledge it, but all the kids were separated by color.” 

That separation continued for Rico up until graduation. It didn’t seem to bother anyone but her, she said.

“[Other people] may not understand that’s not how it is everywhere,” Rico said. “I guess that was the part that was most difficult for me.” 

Casual racism like that was prevalent for Rico during her time at Derby High School.

“No one in Derby is ever going to call someone the n-word with a hard r,” Rico said. “That’s not the type of racism people experience at Derby High School, from my personal experience.” 

Rico remembers that casual racism showing its face again at the end of her senior year. She was at the top of her class at graduation. She had a 4.0 GPA and had received numerous other honors.

“They told me, ‘If you want to speak at graduation, then you can try out your speech and we’ll pick the top two,’” Rico said. “My speech was really good. And it was voted as one of the top speeches. But I didn’t get to make my speech.” 

Rico’s mom ended up asking school administrators why her daughter wasn’t chosen to give her speech. They told her that she had received the votes, but that the school wanted to go with someone else.

“The principal told [my mom], ‘Michelle was one of the top two, but you’re not from here. We need to have people from here do the speeches,’” Rico said.

“It’s not about me not being from [Derby]. When you build systems like that where you’re only going to recognize people who are from a place that is almost all white, you will never recognize people who are not.” 

Rico said that it wasn’t just black students that were treated differently. She worked as a student aide in high school, and she’d often interact with Hispanic students. 

“Those were far more overt racist experiences, sitting next to students who are brown,” Rico said. “It was surprising. There was this belief that if you are brown and live in Oaklawn, then you are poor and a thug.” 

Everything the Hispanic students did “was categorized as gang activity,” Rico said. The school  resource officer and security staff would linger around those students.

“One day a lot of the boys came to school with mittens on,” Rico said. “They wore them on one hand. The next thing you know, they are pulling the kids into the office and asking them if the mittens were gang-related.”

“You were always feeling like you were being watched, or there was the expectation that you were going to do something wrong. It was all the time.” 

Rico graduated from Derby High School in 2008. She now lives in the Kansas City area and teaches at Johnson County Community College. Her parents fill her in on things that happen around Derby, and she reads Derby news on social media. So when she heard that Derby students were protesting racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd, she was proud. But she was also disgusted.

“We had a bunch of kids out there doing the right thing, speaking up for human rights, saying we are equal, and it was just racist comment after comment [on the social media posts],” Rico said. 

That shows that though Derby has made some strides in equality and inclusiveness, it still has a long way to go, Rico said. 

“It’s just horrible that we would have kids on the frontlines of this, and the adults want to act like nothing’s happening. We are damaging these kids by continuing to close eyes. That is what bothers me the most.”

Part three of this series will explore Derby’s ethnic makeup and how those demographics are reflected in its leadership.


Derby_news
Art in the time of COVID-19: Learning to improvise

Typically, two weeks before school starts the Derby High School marching band will have a minicamp to prepare for the upcoming season. This year has been anything but typical, though.

Derby Director of Bands Adam DeVault said he is trying to put something together for his students this week, but the 2020 marching band schedule – like so many other things – has fallen victim to COVID-19.

“We just didn’t feel comfortable until we knew exactly how we were going to start and how we could make this thing work safely,” DeVault said.

Even prior to the minicamp before school, DeVault said he tries to hold a couple of preliminary rehearsals in the spring. Given the school shutdown, that turned into one rehearsal in June – after which DeVault and his students found out that all marching festivals for the fall were cancelled throughout the state.

Now, DeVault and his students are hopeful that they will get the opportunity to play during DHS football games this fall. Livestreaming of halftime shows is also being discussed given crowd size limits.

One thing that is for sure is that the marching band will continue to rehearse outside at zero hour (7 to 7:45 a.m.) Tuesday through Friday before the start of school, but how the band rehearses will look quite different.

Band members will be required to wear masks at all times (with special flaps to allow them to play their instruments) and have bell covers to help mitigate the spread of aerosol particles. Drill is being changed – with more spacing and fewer formations – to promote social distancing on the marching field, and the associated Varsity Band class will have to meet in sections to practice music, given its size.

“There’s actually quite a few things that we’re doing differently or we’re trying to do to mitigate risk,” DeVault said. “Luckily, I kind of feel like we’re on the back side of planning it. Planning it was the hard part. Doing it, once we get going, it’s just going to be a new routine, but it will become routine.”

While COVID-19 has put the marching band “behind the eight ball” this season, as DeVault put it, he thinks getting back on the practice field will bring some sense of comfort and normalcy back to band members lives (as it does for him) and help them adapt.

“I know that for a lot of our students, it’s kind of that way as well,” DeVault said. “So we just feel like if we can get them back in that space where they feel comfortable – even if it’s not exactly what we usually do – if we can create an outlet for a student to learn and perform music, it will hopefully help them to be successful in everything else that they’re being asked to do in these uncertain times.”

Orchestra

For DHS Orchestra Director Wesley DeSpain and his students, size limitations mean those classes will have to rehearse in smaller groups like the band.

Given the orchestra’s instrumentation, though, those groups won’t face near the hurdles of the marching band this fall.

“We don’t have quite as many challenges as the band because we’re just breathing normally in class, so we can rehearse for the entire time we have class,” DeSpain said.

Orchestra members will still have to wear masks, while their performance and competition schedules are also very much in flux. Most fall events have been cancelled, according to DeSpain, while spring festivals are on hold. Currently, DeSpain is working on a broadcast plan for fall concerts.

Participation in honor bands will also be a little different this fall, as Kansas Music Educators Association district honor band concerts have already been cancelled – but students will still be able to audition for a chance to be considered for state honor band (with the verdict still out on that performance in the spring).

Music gives students a voice, DeSpain said, and for that reason he is glad to be pushing forward with classes this fall. Experiences in orchestra will only change slightly due to COVID-19, but he said the class remains a creative outlet for students – simply providing new ways to learn this year.

“Every challenge is an opportunity to grow,” DeSpain said. “If you look at it that way, these students will have opportunities to grow that students before them haven’t had because of this new challenge.”

Drama

Performing with a mask – or virtually – could be a little difficult in the eyes of DHS Theatre Director Richard Shultz, but he’s trying to work around that.

Shultz admitted he doesn’t think it’s likely classes will remain in person at the high school all the way through the semester, so he is adapting. Difficult as it may be, Shultz said he is trying to work with FlipGrid to help students record performances from home to keep up that element at least.

“The biggest part of it is simply going to be my acting classes are all collaboration,” Shultz said. “It’s just pretty much nonstop collaboration, at least a chunk of every class period. If we go online, that’s going to have to change.”

For the period of time that classes are in person, Shultz also noted the changes being made by the band to help limit spread of COVID-19 will require a more formalized room-sharing schedule.

Being the Theatre Technology teacher, Shultz also expects to be the guinea pig for setting up livestreaming for a number of arts performances at the high school – with the fall play usually one of the first.

Already, Shultz has made some performance changes in light of COVID-19 – pivoting away from a second semester musical. Instead, in order to limit costs, the drama department will be performing two royalty free shows this year – “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Charley’s Aunt.”

While many of the performing arts departments are in wait-and-seemode when it comes to live performances, Shultz is like the rest in appreciating the opportunity to still hold classes – particularly with performing arts one of the few subjects of study that activates the right side of the brain.

Shultz has met with his students over the summer months and noted that, even under a different set of rules, they are looking forward to getting the opportunity to create something new.

“They’re a little bit worried about what we’re going to be able to do this year, but at the same time there’s a lot of excitement that this is a challenge,” Shultz said. “This is going to be a challenge of how can we make this all work and I think they’re ready for it.”

Music

Like the other groups, vocal music students at Derby High School will be wearing masks and social distancing through the fall, while those classes will be another to rotate through the DHS auditorium (creating more need for scheduling due to aerosols released).

Concerts and festivals are also on hold for the choirs, though Vocal Music Teacher Tyler Morris is hopeful his groups will be able to perform for a live audience during their concerts – though they will adapt virtually if necessary.

Morris said his expectations for his students remain high even among the changes due to COVID-19. Following the truncated spring season, DHS vocal students and staff got a crash course in online choir. Now, Morris is looking to lead by example and get his students excited about learning music again – no matter the platform.

“I think that kids need music now more than ever,” Morris said. “There are a lot of negative things that students are being exposed to right now. Music is a healing factor for a great deal of fine arts students in the district. I can't wait to start making music with the choir students very soon.”