Students Fight Racism at Peninsula and Gig Harbor High Schools

Two student groups at both schools have formed to push back against what they call a complacent and at times hostile environment.


At the Peninsula School District board meeting Jan. 30, Gig Harbor High School student James McCourt took the podium to point out the district’s low diversity rate and what he called persistent issues with racism in PSD schools.

According to the 2022-23 PSD annual report, only 0.76% of the student population is African-American. McCourt, a senior at GHHS and a member of its newly formed Black Student Union, asked the district to implement a Black history curriculum to address these issues.

This initiative comes at a time when incidents of racism are so commonplace for many high school students at Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools they have become numb to it, he said.

The board listened to McCourt’s suggestions but took no action at the meeting.

McCourt, who spent his first three years of high school at Peninsula, recalled numerous times he and his peers witnessed racial jokes and heard racial slurs in the district.

“Black students have almost gotten used to it because it’s like, OK, whatever,” McCourt said. “(Then there’s) kind of a fear of being told, oh, you’re being way too sensitive about it.”

He described a time at Peninsula when he experienced racist speech personally.

“There was this kid that came up to me and I had no idea who he was, never met him, didn’t know who he was, and he was like ‘I have a riddle for you,’ and he lists every Black stereotype, you know, who loves fried chicken, who smokes weed, who goes to jail.”

McCourt said he has learned to put up with it, but those kinds of statements still sting.

“People should understand that it’s hurtful and it eventually makes a hostile environment at school,” he said. “Then you don’t want to go to school, or you don’t want to go to a specific class because you’re afraid something might happen.”

The issue appears to be compounded by students who are hesitant to speak to administrators to report a racist incident. McCourt said this is largely because kids know it’s unlikely that anything will be done.

At a recent Black Student Union meeting, the group discussed an episode involving a member’s sibling. “They were called a bunch of names and slurs, and the teacher knew, the teacher heard, but then the teacher didn’t do anything about it,” said one participant.

This comes after a Dec. 7 incident on a Kopachuck Middle School bus when a 12-year-old Asian American student was beaten by others, one of whom said, “Must suck to be Asian.” It was recorded on video and reported by other students.

According to the victim’s mother, PSD did not consider it bullying since the victim fought back. It assigned a new bus seat to the main assailant and told her to contact the police if she wanted more done.

PHS Principal Mike Benoit said he wants students to speak to adults, ideally in person, but that the administration also provides online tools.

“There’s a link to our harassment, intimidation and bullying form on our web page,” Benoit said. “There’s also some QR codes around the building (that link to that). But also I would always just encourage kids just to talk to adults. Just talk to us.”

Benoit said that while he doesn’t hear racist language around school, all reports are handled appropriately, even when it may not seem like it to students.

“I don’t hear it, but I will tell you that if we know about it, we deal with it, and we do hear that it happens at times,” he said. “We don’t always tell students what the consequences are for somebody because everybody has a right to privacy.”

The Black Student Union at GHHS began meeting in 2023 to work on projects and organize events to promote inclusion and diversity on campus. Last January, the group worked with their Associated Student Body organization to run an assembly for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The group promotes education as a step toward eliminating racism and discrimination in PSD.

“We’re thinking we as the Black Student Union (could) create a PowerPoint and present it to homeroom classes,” McCourt said. “But make it like a semester-long class of Black history and preferably have it taught by a person of color.”

McCourt said this could help because most people in high school fall into complacency. They don’t participate in malicious racism, but they also don’t do anything about it. This group could be swayed by education.

“There’s like three groups of students when it comes to this,” he said. “There’s the group that wants to make change and hates what’s going on and will continue to fight and fight until it’s done. And then you’ve got the opposite end where they believe in it. They believe, you know? When they say the N-word, they believe. And then you have this group in the middle that is just kind of neutral. And I feel like the majority of students are neutral. So they’re not willing to say something about it.”

PHS is also making progress toward a Black student group. A new People of Color club is putting up posters around campus. They also have an upcoming meeting with Principal Benoit to discuss their club.

“I want to hear from them,” Benoit said. “I can make assumptions about how they’re feeling but I want to hear from them about what their experiences are, so I make sure that I understand them.”

Jonas Koller is a sophomore at Peninsula High School.