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Washington’s Centennial Elementary backpedals minority-only club after parent outrage

A Washington elementary school had planned on banning white students from a new “safe space” club until backlash forced it to reconsider segregating its fifth-graders.

Centennial Elementary in Olympia had kicked off the calendar year with a new “Black, Indigenous, People of Color” student group for fifth-graders that only accepted its minority students, according to an email shared by Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Washington).

“At this time, this group is limited to students who identify as BIPOC,” Principal Shannon Ritter wrote in the January email.

“For these students, this space allows them to hang out, check-in and possibly talk about their experiences as a student in the minority as they build community, connections and confidence.”

“It is primarily a safe space for them.”

The club was created as part of a districtwide-wide mentorship program, a spokesperson told local radio talk show KTTH. Centennial Elementary was also in the process of lining up a similar group for its fourth-grade students.

The group was scheduled to meet once a week during lunch. School staff would help facilitate conversations, the district said, but it would mainly be a student-led group that put an “emphasis on historically unrepresented populations.”

Centennial Elementary in Olympia
Centennial Elementary School

But the new club had already caused a rift in the community — white students barred from the club had shown interest in joining the new group, leading administrators to contemplate forming an allied counterpart, according to the email.

Parents and adult community members condemned the initiative, claiming it was only furthering the racial divides it hoped to eliminate.

“How can they advance racial justice, as they claim, by creating racial injustices? This whole way of thinking is so backwards and wrong. What happen (sic) to be kind and treat others with respect?” parent Denise Frank wrote in one of the hundreds of comments left under Walsh’s initial Facebook post.

“How is this not racism when kids are joining a group solely based on race/skin color?” Rebecca Weisenhaus questioned.

“We need to teach it doesn’t matter if we’re different color. Our character is. We are Americans. Stop the racial bullcrap,” said Debbie Gabriel.

Centennial Elementary reversed its BIPOC-only policy Tuesday, about a week after the new group was announced to parents.

Children at modern school facility
Getty Images

“Groups like this are important for elevating voices and are instrumental in helping our district design a responsive educational experience that meets the needs of all students,” a spokesperson told KTTH.

“At the same time, we recognize that they cannot be exclusionary. Moving forward, we will ensure that school leadership and staff are specific about the purpose of these groups, while simultaneously removing any exclusions to participation.”