Hundreds of students at an Oregon high school walked out of their classrooms last week after a classmate’s racist TikTok began to make the rounds. In the video, a female student sitting in bed methodically recites racial slurs for Black people, Muslims, Asians and Latinos. Another student behind the camera encourages her with questions.
The video sent shockwaves through Tigard High School, in a suburb outside Portland. And last Wednesday, students of color and allies walked off campus in protest.
“I didn’t believe it, I was like, ‘No way,’” said Sean Sorko-Ram, 17, a senior at Tigard who is Black. “You hear someone say the N-word, you hear things here and there, but all of them together in one video. … The best word I can use is flabbergasted.”
Sorko-Ram said she immediately recognized the girl in the video — they had passed each other in the school’s front office before. While hearing those words come out of her mouth was a shock to the system, she said it was hard to be surprised.
“I’m desensitized,” Sorko-Ram said. “I literally listened and I’m like, ‘There’s another one.’”
High school and district officials said they couldn’t comment on whether the student is still on campus, but noted that a range of punishments are explored in these situations. For hate speech, though, expulsion is usually not one of them.
Racism in the hallways of Tigard High isn’t uncommon, said Sorko-Ram, who has been called the N-word in class.
“I was a freshman and I was in English class,” she said. “There was this boy who sat next to me and thought it would be funny to call me an ‘ape n-----,’ hard ‘r’. In that moment you just kind of sit there and you’re like, ‘What?’”
Friends have been followed home and called slurs in passing, Sorko-Ram said, and many are too afraid to come forward.
“What students are reporting are from their personal experience,” Principal Brian Bailey said. “If we are hearing more reports of these situations it could represent an uptick in hate speech. It may also be influenced by our collective and continued work to encourage students to speak out and report these incidents.”
With this increase in students seeking to share their experiences, finding a safe space to do so can be challenging, Sorko-Ram said. Some teachers are caring and safe for students to come to in these situations, she said. Others “just aren’t good people.”
Regardless, students say teachers and administrators can’t do enough in these situations.
“These kids should get expelled,” Sorko-Ram said. “These teachers are trying. But there’s only so much they can do.”
The bar is set high for expulsion, said the superintendent for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, Sue Rieke-Smith, who joined the students in their walkout. “That list is very short and tight,” she said. “Typically, it has to do with threats of violence or repeated acts that demonstrate that the student does not want to be a member of the community.”
To Rieke-Smith’s memory, a student has never been expelled for off-campus hate speech, but she said that doesn’t change her disgust with the student’s comments.
“It is a horrific video,” she said. “It does not represent what Tigard-Tualatin School District believes in and has been working towards. It was beyond disappointing and disgusting.”
Since the TikTok has had a significant impact on students’ learning, Rieke-Smith said, more disciplinary avenues have opened up to administrators. She can’t share what will happen to this specific student, but “the gamut can run anywhere from an in-school suspension to an out-of-school suspension to seeking other disciplinary avenues.”
Sending a student home “in a vacuum” without having adults around to help them reflect on the impact of their actions isn’t always the best course of action either, she said.
Rieke-Smith said parents respond in their own way to disciplinary action against their children. “There have been situations where parents have threatened to sue,” she said, “to which we say that does not dissuade us from doing the work we need to do.”
The district is still investigating the incident, and in the meantime, Rieke-Smith said student affinity groups like the Black Student Union are being used as forums to discuss the video and its aftereffects. The school has also established listening sessions where students can come forward. In response to students who say racism runs deep at Tigard, Rieke-Smith concedes that it’s a nationwide problem.
“The thing about public education is that we don’t make the public, the public comes to us as they are,” she said.
For Sorko-Ram, who will graduate in the spring, the biggest incentive for standing up against it is her little sister. “She’s 12 years old and is having white kids come up to her and say things like, ‘Oh your skin is the color of literal s---,’” she said. “She’s a seventh grader. She has two more years until she’s a freshman.”
Though the video angered her, Sorko-Ram knows the problem is bigger than the student who made it. And too often, the burden is put on nonwhite students to figure out solutions.
“It’s not about her,” Sorko-Ram said. “She messed up, but she just got caught. ... Nothing’s going to happen unless people actually do their part and do their due diligence in order to make this stop.”