Westbrook Middle School students of color who spoke with the American Journal this week say plans underway to promote cultural awareness and inclusivity among students and are positive first steps.

School officials have met multiple times with a group of students who were among about 50 involved in a walk-out protest last week, spurred by a black juvenile’s interaction with a police officer at Together Days. That incident was the catalyst, the students said, but the bigger issue was that students of color at the middle school often feel like outsiders whose cultures aren’t taken seriously or recognized. They also said they’d like to see more staff members of color.

Among the steps agreed upon at the student-staff meetings were holding cultural potluck dinners at the school, displaying flags that represent students’ home countries and adding more depth to Black History Month curriculum, according to Principal Laurie Wood. The school also plans to launch a “student voices” committee to make it more comfortable for students of color to bring concerns to staff.

Eighth grader Aaliyah Malual, who helped organize the protest, said she was pleased that school officials met with the students and heard them out.

“I thought it was really nice,” Malual said in a phone interview Monday. “It felt more open arms when talking to them and we are able to talk to them about stuff.”

Before, she said, she and other students of color never felt comfortable speaking to white staff members about issues they face, ranging from inappropriate comments made to them to their desire to discuss more than slavery during Black History Month.


Malual, a Black Arab, recalls one time being called on in class to speak on slavery when she hadn’t raised her hand to do so, something she felt was disrespectful and tokenizing.

She and other students said that it would be easier to speak of issues like that with faculty of color.

“Teachers of color could relate to me in a lot of ways, and a lot of students of color might be more comfortable talking with them,” eighth grader Nahjwah White told the American Journal.

Eighth grader Mirvet Al Sahhaf recalled students in art class making fun of a lesson on henna tattoos, a valued tradition in the Arabic culture, saying henna looked like “poop.”

“I was getting irritated because that is a big part of my culture,” Al Sahhaf said.

Malual also was teased by other students because of henna, she said.


“I got my nails done with henna and they were making jokes that I had a disease, poop on my hands, and that hurt because that’s a part of my culture, something used for celebration and joy,” Malual said. 

Another time, students jokingly asked Al Sahhaf if she was related to an Arabic woman on the staff,  which left Al Sahhaf feeling mocked, she said.

The middle school has two teachers of color, Wood said. A third staff member of color is an ed tech who is working on full teaching credentials.

The school will continue its ongoing effort to recruit a more racially diverse staff, but in the meantime, Wood said, a big brother/big sister type of program, where older students of color would be paired with younger students, could be helpful.

The students liked the idea of holding cultural dinners at the school as a way to expose other students to their different backgrounds and cuisines.

“Then everyone in the school gets to represent their country, bring in food and that day would feel really included,” eighth grader Hadil Zackaria said. “Those kids would get to speak about their culture, so people are just aware of it and will respect where you are from.” 


The student voice committee could address Black History Month curriculum and suggest adding content about Black scientists and historically significant events, for example,  and in general give teachers a different perspective on their lessons, the students said.

Malual said the committee will further empower students of color because the meeting last week with staff members already has “made a difference.”

“I feel like I can talk about issues to the school and something will happen. It’s a really good start,” Malual said. “We didn’t want a Black Student Union because we wanted all students there, we want everyone to be able to talk, which is why the voice committee was a good idea.”

While most of the changes will occur in the new school year, one action taken last week was also empowering, Malual said. The school for the first time raised a Juneteenth flag in honor of the June 19 federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. and a celebration of African-American culture.

Since the protest last week, middle school student participation in the city’s inaugural Juneteenth event Sunday has gone from a handful to well over 20, Wood said. That shows the importance of the issue among youth, she said.

“We are proud of our students for using their voice to make change and speak up for others. They really want to include everyone in this too,” Wood said.

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