Handley BSU

Members of the newly formed Black Student Union at Handley High School stand in front of the school’s entrance. From left are Brittnay Turner, Ashlea McConnell, Sanae Stokes, Kiyah Sloane, Zadriana Johnson, Eunice Mejiadeu and Brittiana Rush.

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.”

— Contact Anna Merod

at amerod@winchesterstar.com

(24) comments

LookerinVA

The gold standard here should be if we created a "white student union" how would we feel? Why is "black student union" any different?

Bryan.the.Nuri

No, it shouldn't. What systemic issues imperil the white student?

Truth101

It’s sad to see comments of pure negativity when positivity since positivity has been portrayed!

search4u

Anyone have the name of that country (population/minority numbers similar to US) where ‘diversity/multiculturalism’ is practiced without the force of law!

Bryan.the.Nuri

The United States?

Truth101

What a great achievement young Ladies. Don’t let the negativity make you look down or back but hold your heads high with positivity and determination. Again, Congratulations and keep the door open to moving forward.

Charles Ridings

Kudos to those young women!!!

elliew

Wonderful to see a group of young adults identifying a problem and taking steps to address it and working to better their environment! We all could learn a thing or two from these young women. Best of luck!

search4u

Lots of whites on here suffering from white guilt. Suicide is tough to watch!

Mich229

Good for you ladies! Nice to see a group not playing victim and trying to improve things! And in the comments, enough with the victim narrative, it’s a lie. Look at statistics from Dept of Justice and compare to US census data ;) Also, try living overseas for a year then tell me how much a "victim" you feel then! You are only a victim in the US if you let yourself be one. Stop complaining and be thankful you live in a country where you can actually post your comments (even if they are idiotic).

slowe

Why are there not Black men in this picture? Are there any men as members of this group? Are white allies allied to join? Have any done so? I hope the STAR continues to follow this story and that the school administration supports it. It would also be a good idea to have groups for other oppressed groups: Latinos, gays, etc. Note, as some will probably say: “Where is the group for whites? Or for white men? “. Well, they don’t need one since they are and have been in power for a LONG time and they are not being oppressed or disadvantaged like other groups are. Queue: fragile white supremacy.

Conservative

You're never happy. Just go away, you miserable person. Nothing is ever enough for you.

Tamster0111

This is fantastic! I did not grow up here in Winchester, but in the 80's when I was in high school, we had a Black Student Union that was very active in school. Great job, ladies!

john brown

Beautiful, smiling young women... you go ladies! It drives the right winger crazier and that's a good thing.

we66

If there was a white student union it would not be allowed because it would be called racist. But a black student union is OK. Figure that one out.

Conservative

I'm sure they would allow white students to join.

john brown

you are finally right about something .. there are many white members of Black Lives Matter not so many black members of the klan or "proud boys"

davism412

Most predictable comment ever. Some people will never get it.

john brown

there is one, quiet as it's kept, and has been since my days in high school and you folks know it ... it's a well kept secret

soulmates

If the white kids started a white student union they would immediately be branded KKK and the leader would be the grand wizard! I have been there and done that when I was in the federal workforce. Regardless of the group intention to be part of the solution. You will never see a white male or female in charge of a diversity group. It is always a minority man or woman. Whites are immediately stereotyped as evil or bad in these situations.

john brown

Poor victimized white folks ... smh

Bryan.the.Nuri

Please show where young white children are being oppressed and discriminated against...

slowe

Good for them. I wish them well. Waiting for the nay-sayers......

davism412

Didn't have to wait long, didja? I don't know why I check the comments sometimes. I knew based on the headline that someone would immediately make the exact comment above. So discouraged by the consistent lack of reason and compassion.

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