Daily file photo by Patrick Svitek
The ransacking of a board member’s car in January was the most visible episode in a pattern of harassment toward Evanston/Skokie School District 65 personnel that began shortly before the start of the school year.
Over the past several months, board members and administrators have received more than a dozen emails containing derogatory, racist and homophobic remarks toward leaders and students pertaining to the district’s announcement of priority groups for in-person learning. An anonymous individual also mailed to the district’s central office a half-dozen religious postcards of Bible quotes that administrators say were coded threats referencing themes of death.
Board member Soo La Kim said she is now worried about meeting in-person at the district’s central office when pandemic restrictions loosen.
The harassment began last August, after an article ran in the Evanston RoundTable that quoted a deputy superintendent saying Black and brown students would be among the groups the district would prioritize once schools reopened.
In an interview with The Daily, D65 Superintendent Devon Horton said the RoundTable article had misrepresented how students would be prioritized in reopening plans. “In every priority group we have on our website, we don’t have Black and brown students anywhere,” he said. “We know that’s illegal.”
Horton and the deputy superintendent’s statement, published by the RoundTable on Aug. 4, was picked up by Fox News, which ran the story under the headline “Illinois district includes students of color in groups with first chance at in-person learning.” The story received further attention from a handful of conservative publications, including the Washington Examiner, and spread widely online.
District 65 personnel began to receive emails responding to the reports as early as Aug. 6. The Daily obtained 19 of the emails as well as scans of several mailed documents from a Freedom of Information Act request and a board member.
Most emails were sent to Horton, though a few were sent to board members.
The emails accused Horton and the board members of racism against White students. One called Horton and Black board members “Black supremacists” and said an Asian board member was “a disgrace” to their race for failing to “take on” their Black colleagues.
Several emails addressed to Horton falsely attributed the achievement gap in District 65 to violence and drug use among Black youth, a racist stereotype.
Others sent statements disparaging the LGBTQ community and board members’ sexual orientations.
It wasn’t clear what portion of the emails came from Evanston residents or outsiders. One sender referred to themselves as a “former resident of the Evanston/Skokie area.” Some of the emails included links to reporting from the RoundTable and Fox News.
Almost all of the emails were received in August, but some messages continued throughout the fall. Beginning at the end of August, however, an unknown person began to send religiously-themed postcards to District 65’s central office.
The postcards featured evangelical imagery, such as crucifixes and flowers, and featured Bible verses. The two postcards obtained by The Daily directed readers to Hebrews 9:27, a New Testament verse referencing death and the Last Judgment.
According to multiple board members and the superintendent, the postcards were sent on a regular schedule, roughly every three weeks to a month, through December. Several board members received postcards, as did two administrators. All of the postcard recipients were women.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that none of the men on the board have gotten one,” board vice president Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said.
One board member said the postcards appeared to come from out of state. Two cards obtained by The Daily were both postmarked from California.
The district office also received an envelope from Wichita, Kansas containing religious pamphlets, addressed to Horton.
Board members expressed concern to The Daily over the messages to the district and the treatment of their Black colleagues.
“There is a tenor that some of the communications take that is not acceptable, certainly when it gets into racialized name-calling,” said board member Sunith Kartha.
Horton said he was disappointed but unsurprised by the emails and letters, which he said indicated a broader pattern of systemic racism within the district.
Evanston’s racial achievement gap considerably outpaces state averages. Among Evanston Township High School’s 2020 graduating class, 32 percent of Black male students and 26 percent of Hispanic/Latino male students did not meet benchmarks in English, math, attendance or GPA, compared with four percent of White males.
“Evanston gets a lot of respect for being a progressive community, a space where equity was valued,” Horton said. “If it was really equity-centered, and that work was going down into the fabric of everything we do, the numbers wouldn’t look like that.”
District 65 schools began to open for in-person learning Feb. 17. Though the Evanston Police Department was alerted to the emails in August and has been in touch with administrators and the board, Horton said the district is not pursuing additional security measures for students and staff or board members at this time.
Horton told The Daily the district has not received further hate mail since Lindsay-Ryan was targeted in January. Board members have continued to meet remotely due to the pandemic.
“Part of this journey is going to be challenging, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for quite some time if we are really to bring about the change that’s necessary,” Horton said.
Olivia Alexander contributed reporting.
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