Elizabeth and her two siblings attended the same schools in the Blackfoot School District. The three of them started school at the district’s kindergarten and later attended Stalker Elementary, Mountain View Middle school, and Blackfoot High School.
Elizabeth graduated more than a decade ago and her brother is still in high school. Despite the time gap, Elizabeth and her siblings share similar experiences as Latinx students in Blackfoot schools. They both felt pushed out as a result of their experiences with the lack of translation and interpretation accommodations for their mom, racially hostile environments, and increased discipline and policing in school.
Elizabeth now lives in another state but continues to advocate for her brother and share ways to improve the educational experiences of Latinx students in Idaho.
*The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Did you ever face racial discrimination in schools in Blackfoot?
Growing up as a Latine person in the Blackfoot School District I experienced a lot of racism from my teachers. The biggest thing that has stuck with me was that I wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish in school growing up. I have distinct memories throughout my whole [education] of being withheld from recess or having to stand on the wall because I would speak Spanish.
I have brought those experiences into my adulthood, and it has created a lot of internalized shame. I’m at a better place now, but I still feel a sense of shame when I speak Spanish. This has also hindered my ability to teach my own child Spanish now.
I also recall that in middle school, there was a lot of racial tension between Latinx and white students. To the point that in middle school, the students organized a fight against each other and had a plan to meet at the park. During this time, I remember there was something going on, like “A Day without a Mexican.” And the white students would call us “beaners” and other racial slurs. And teachers and administration would not do anything about it.
Was access to language services an obstacle in your education?
The community liaison was the one who helped my mom enroll me in kindergarten, and during every point of enrollment and after every big transition, if my mom ever had a question or she needed support, she would call her. The liaison would come out, and she would help my mom fill out paperwork and help with translation. Whenever a translator was not available as a child, I would end up translating and interpreting for my mom.
As an adult now I actually still help my mom navigate the school system with my brother, but I live in another state now, so I am not able to advocate for my brother in person. My mom speaks English OK now and she understands it very well, but not to the level where she could confidently advocate for my brother if she was able to in Spanish.
If institutions receive federal funds, it is mandated that they provide a translator or an interpreter, but the schools just don’t follow that and it’s very frustrating. So, the liaison was a key component to literally being heard and helping my mom physically navigate the school system when I was not there.
Did you see Latinx students experience discipline in a different way?
One time in high school, I also remember being called to the School Resource Officer’s (SROs’) office. And he was basically trying to intimidate me. He told me if I touched another student I could go to jail. At the end of the meeting, he saw that I was very confused. It turns out, he had confused me with another student because there was a student with a similar name, and he thought that it was me. My mom was never notified of this situation.
I think for a really long time I didn’t feel safe in school in general, regardless of whether there were SROs or not, because of the culture that teachers had created for me. I remember the feelings that I felt and now that I am in the mental health field, I realize my body was recognizing that I didn’t feel safe or comfortable before I could articulate “I think I’m being discriminated against” or “I feel unsafe” or “I feel scared.” So, I had really somatic experiences before I could really articulate what was happening to me.
Did you ever experience different access to academic resources as a Latinx student?
I was discouraged from taking [AP] classes. I remember specifically signing up for an AP English class because I loved writing. And my counselor sat me down and said “Are you sure you want to take this class? Is it right for you? How about you enroll in regular English? I think you’ll do better there.” And I unenrolled from it and just enrolled in a regular English course.
It was really discouraging, and it really was a stab to my self-confidence. I think high school plays such an important part of youth building up their self-confidence and to destroy it like that can have long term impacts. But there were also remarks here and there. I remember in middle school raising my hand because I was eager to answer her questions and my teacher yelling at me and telling me to put my hand down. This experience led me to be very reserved and quiet in class.
Have your siblings had similar experiences in schools in Blackfoot?
In middle school, there was an instance where a teacher had called my brother a derogatory slur and so I brought it to the vice-principal’s attention. And they started to shift the blame saying my brother was getting bad grades and not following the rules. But I told them “You’re not creating a safe environment for him. What are you going to do about that?” Because that obviously comes back to his learning and the way he shows up to his school.
A couple of weeks later, they wanted to suspend my brother because he had received three warnings and after the third warning there was an automatic suspension. So, I asked what the three warnings had been. One of them was that he stopped another student’s basketball from going into a hoop. Another was that he wore an inappropriate hoodie. And the last interaction was that he ran across the street before the teacher told him he could cross. It turns out the teacher who was calling him names was the one giving my brother all these warnings. And my mom had to go to an in-person meeting to stop them from suspending him.
He also had some incidents with the police accusing him of stealing something from another child. I told the administrators that I did not want my brother to speak to law enforcement in the future because they had already made him speak to law enforcement without a parent or adult from the family present. And he said that he would try his best but that he couldn’t guarantee that. And I told the administrators “We know that Black and Brown students receive punishments differently, so it’s really important that you call us right away.”
Because of these experiences, my brother no longer wanted us to bring up issues he went through with the school. Although he was glad that we were advocating for him, it also created issues for him.
His first week of high school he was called down to the principal’s office. They talked to him and told him they saw him roaming the halls and that they had video of him doing this. My brother denied it and asked to watch the video. It turned out it was just another Brown student wearing a hoodie.
My brother also had multiple experiences where the SRO and the principal accused him of graffiti, they searched his bookbag and his pockets, and they did not find anything.
Another time, he had a migraine and he had thrown up. They sent him to the principal’s office because they assumed he was on fentanyl. And they made a huge scene. They called the police, the ambulance, gave him Narcan, and they wanted to send him to the hospital. My sister was able to get there right away, and she drove him to the clinic to get tested for fentanyl and the test came back negative.
My brother was failing with his grades and not succeeding in this environment. But once he was removed from this environment and transferred to a charter school, he is now top of his class.
How do you think Latinx students would be better supported in school?
I struggle with that because I feel like the whole system needs an overhaul. I think more representation at the school district level is needed.
Families need to have more input in decisions made, especially regarding policies at the school-wide level. Families need more opportunities to come together at meeting times that work for them. Families need to have more translators and interpreters on site. And teachers and principals need to have more culturally competent staff and cultural training.
If I could talk to my principals and teachers, I would tell them I deserved better. The Latinx community has a strong identity, and it is important to help foster that in students. The Latinx community is also very resourceful and smart. Schools should not assume we don’t have solutions or that we are not capable. They need to stop this deficit mindset.
The Education Equity for Latinx Students project started in the fall of 2022 as part of our efforts to expand racial justice work on behalf of Idaho students, beginning with Latinx communities.