WINCHESTER — As a young Black woman, Eunice Mejiadeu hasn’t always felt like she belonged at Handley High School.
She has friends of color who feel the same way.
“When we look at Handley, there’s not really this, I guess a safe place to come together. There’s a lot of self-isolation,” said the 17-year-old senior. “We just got kind of tired of just not feeling like we mattered, and I don’t think that was the intention Handley wanted to bring, and I feel like it just gradually happened over time.”
Eunice also felt frustration over often being the only Black student in her higher-level classes.
“So I just thought why not make a space where we can both promote education and also promote unity at Handley,” she said.
The result is the school’s first Black Student Union. The club’s aim is to help students strive for academic excellence, promote positive images of Black Americans and help students become an integral part of the school community. Students of all races are welcome to join the club, she said.
That feeling of not belonging that Eunice and her friends have experienced seems to resonate with a significant number of students at Handley, according to a report Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum presented to the School Board in May. A survey conducted by the school division indicated only 31% of the 962 students who responded said they felt a sense of belonging at Handley.
Another survey completed by the Department of Criminal Justice Services found that 44% of respondents said Handley students are teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity.
Handley’s student body is 43% Caucasian, 35.3% Hispanic, 11.4% Black, 6.7% mixed race, 2.7% Asian and 0.8% Native American, according to Virginia Department of Education data from the fall of 2019.
The club’s by-laws state the Black Student Union is designed to promote inclusivity, including having more students of color in higher-level classes, reducing school absences and the dropout rate at Handley, and improving opportunities for post-secondary education. Club members also plan to volunteer at local nonprofit groups and find scholarships to benefit students of color.
Handley’s Class of 2019 dropout rate was 7.1%. The school’s chronic absenteeism rate — when a student misses 10% or more of academic instruction time — was 24% in the 2018-2019 school year. For Black students that same year, the chronic absenteeism rate was 35%, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
While Eunice helped create Handley’s first Black Student Union, a similar group called Minorities Concerns was established in the late 1980s or early 1990s to give students of color a place to vent about their lives in and out of school, said Tom Dixon, a former Handley teacher and basketball coach who was involved with Minorities Concerns.
Dixon said students in the group were often “frustrated because of the way they were treated in class. There were a lot of kids who were angry, some for very legit reasons why they were angry, because they just weren’t being treated right.”
For more than a decade, there was strong student interest in Minorities Concerns, Dixon said. But in the early to mid-2000s that interest faded, he said, though he isn’t exactly sure why. Meeting attendance over the years ranged from five to up to 70 students, he added.
Dixon is pleased for the students who have formed the Black Student Union, noting that Minorities Concerns faced some backlash when it was at Handley.
“It’s a chance for them to be together,” Dixon said about the Black Student Union. “It’s also a chance to make progress.”
Van Heukelum welcomes the new group.
“We are committed to amplifying and empowering the voice of our students, while acknowledging and celebrating our areas of difference,” Van Heukelum said. “The Black Student Union at John Handley High School is another example of how we are systematically supporting all of our students so they can thrive and develop positive self-efficacy through empowerment.”