Not so welcome? East students share experiences with discrimination at school
January 21, 2022
I personally hear slurs used at least five times every day.
We’ve been targeted, followed, barked at.
I’ve been called a terrorist.
No one here accepts anyone.
— Anonymous East Students
Featured in Eastside’s January 2022 Issue
“I personally hear slurs used at least five times every day.”
“We’ve been targeted, followed, barked at.”
“I’ve been called a terrorist.”
“No one here accepts anyone.”
When Eastside surveyed 357 students to share their experiences and comment on whether Cherry Hill High School East is a welcoming environment, these were just a few of the alarming responses.
According to East principal Dr. Dennis Perry, success is only achieved when 100% of students feel welcome at East.
“As the principal of the school, I want [every] student to feel as though they belong here at East… every student,” Perry said.
By that standard, East is failing.
According to Eastside data, 24.9 percent of students do not feel that there is a welcoming environment at East.
When examining more specific topics, the picture is even darker — from over 64 percent of LGBTQ+ students feeling that there is a homophobic and transphobic environment at East, to 58 percent of Black and Hispanic students feeling that the environment is racist. In addition to surveying hundreds of students, Eastside conducted interviews and sought to learn how and why some students feel unwelcome at East. What we found was that while East is recognized by many as an open-minded and accepting environment, it is evident from students’ experiences that a homophobic, transphobic, sexist, racist, anti-semitic, and overall unwelcoming environment exists for some.
“Boys on my bus use the word ‘fa****’ every day.”
“Gay [is] used as an insult.”
“There would be guys who were like, ‘Don’t get near the lesbian.’”
“Nobody ever… tries to put a stop to it.”
A small sampling of the written responses Eastside received via multiple methods of surveying shared that these experiences represent the accounts of 40.2 percent of East students who feel they attend school in a homophobic environment. Among LGBTQ+ students, the rate of concern is even higher, at 64.8 percent, a strong majority of potentially affected students feel that East is homophobic.
Many students expressed concerns about the use of homophobic slurs at East. One student, who spoke with Eastside on the condition of anonymity, said they hear slurs around five times per day at East. This student, who identifies as LGBTQ+, additionally said they are personally targeted by a slur around one time per week.
“I’ve heard really messed up things,” wrote one student regarding the use of homophobic slurs. They also said they see less pushback against homophobic slurs than they see against other harmful types of speech.
Another prevalent concern relating to homophobia was that of targeted harassment. Specifically, several students reported ongoing harassment centered around one of East’s courtyards, where some LGBTQ+ students have said they sat during lunch breaks. The courtyard has been repeatedly called derogatory names by students outside of it, including “full of [r****d]s.”
“Some kids call the courtyard ‘the zoo,’” one student wrote. Students sitting in the courtyard have also repeatedly been called “animals at the zoo” and other derogatory terms.
“I’ve had many friends be called the n-slur, I’ve had myself and some of my friends called the f-slur. There was a thing happening where some kids would physically hurt and target kids in that courtyard strictly because they were LGBTQ+,” an anonymous student said about the courtyard situation. While they said they did not witness violence directly, they reported having seen friends’ bruises from physical altercations stemming from harassment in the courtyard.
While Perry said he was aware of one past incident involving targeted harassment at East, he had not heard of physical violence or lasting harassment in the courtyard. He encouraged students to report all instances of harassment, saying that while students may wish that issues could go away on their own, that likely won’t happen. More generally, Perry also said he believes that the rate of students reporting a homophobic environment is currently high because the COVID-19 pandemic led students to become more immature. He predicted that once students have fully adjusted to being back in school, there will be less homophobia.
Transphobia and Gender Identity Discrimination
“People make fun of pronouns [and] gender expression.”
“[There is] intentional misgendering by students.”
“People make fun of trans and gay people all the time.”
Again representing a larger sample of East experiences shared with Eastside, these concerns about transphobia align with data on the subject. The statistics are similar, though slightly worse, than those for homophobia at East. Among all students, 42.1 percent feel there is a transphobic environment at East. LGBTQ+ students report there being a transphobic environment at a rate of 68.5 percent.
Students shared concerns about supposed “jokes” that were intentionally harmful. Some also shared that their peers lacked understanding of their experiences.
One student wrote that what it means to be transgender or nonbinary “needs to be talked about more” as some students lack knowledge on the topic, which can contribute to discrimination.
As a result of this discrimination, some students said East is not a safe space for them to be themselves.
“It is not like I can ignore my own identity for so long, [because] this is also a part of me,” said Lyann Mejia (‘23), who uses she/they pronouns.
“Two guys [were] walking by my SGA campaign poster, and [one] was saying not to vote for me because I was a slut.”
“Boys sports teams are favored more [than girls’]teams at East.”
“There was a male student that said females in STEM deserve to make less because they are choosing a male-dominated field…Another male student said ‘women belong in the kitchen’ when scoring worse on a test than me, a female. And there are more instances than just these…”
What is referred to as “more instances,” are the interactions that foster a school environment that around one in three (33.9 percent) students feel is a sexist one. Among the students surveyed, 39.2 percent of females, and a smaller 17.3 percent of males, believe East is a sexist environment.
“I think it is just so accepted and normalized that when it happens, nobody speaks up… you just ignore it or push it out of [your] mind and move on,” said Anna Neubauer (‘23).
Neubauer said she has recognized, witnessed, and experienced sexism in many forms at East, with some prime examples emerging from East’s dress code.
“A lot of people have gotten dress-coded; they’ve been told really inappropriate things by teachers [about] things they shouldn’t be wearing or what they should be wearing,” Neubauer said referring to her findings in a poll she recently conducted on her Instagram account about dress code at East.
Another concern students expressed about sexism at East regarded sports teams. Specifically, some students said that boys’ sports teams receive more support than girls’ teams.
Speaking about students who make that claim, Perry said “I agree with them.” He said that the sizes of crowds at boys’ games are often larger, exhibiting a disparity in levels of support. Moreover, he called the Cherry Hill East Countrymen, a student fan group a “perfect example” of this problem. The group encourages students to cheer on, and attend games for boys’ sports teams at East, but does not do so for girls’ teams. With 86 posts on their Instagram page since November of 2019, they have never dedicated a post to garnering support for an East girls’ sports team (as of December 16, 2021).
If you are facing discrimination at East, administrators urge you to report it, including through the anonymous StopIt app. You can also talk to your guidance counselor in A-wing.
Crystal Yeh (‘24), East’s current sophomore class president, said she thinks East students do not know where to go when they experience sexism, with some not even knowing they have a grade-level principal. In Eastside’s survey, it was found that more than one in four students (29.4 percent) feel that they do not have a trusted adult at school with whom they can talk.
Jennifer DiStefano, the Student Assistance Counselor at East, even said that when a student needs support and their teacher says to go see her, students say, “Who’s that?” She added, however, that she has told students what she does repeatedly through class meetings and attending all of the orientations.
“You just forget you don’t need us. It’s when you need us is when you find us,” she said.
Racism and Anti-Semitism
“I’ve been called a terrorist… as a Muslim woman.”
“[I’m] constantly [called] ch**k, ling ling, [and I have had people] stretch eyelids at me.”
“[I] got called [the] n-word with a hard r.”
These experiences are not merely isolated incidents of blatant racism: 34.7 percent of students believe that there is a racist environment at East. Worse, 58 percent of Black and Hispanic students believe there is a racist environment, while 39.5 percent of all non-white students believe there is one.
Sophie Angulo (‘22) has been the target of multiple slurs. While she acknowledged that there is a wide range of diversity at East, she also noted that the racist occurrences that she has experienced have undermined her experience.
These normalized insults are commonplace within East’s halls, with multiple students having reported their usage.
Students at East reported that they were called the following slurs while in school:
In her freshman year, a classmate called Angulo “the dumbest Asian girl.”
When facing these situations, Angulo said she talked to friends because they could relate to some of her experiences and provide advice.
“I just feel like there [are] not a lot of outlets for me to go to; it’s better if I go to my friends,” said Angulo.
Another senior student at East described the school as a collaborative society that is made up of members willing to help each other. However, the student also described personal experiences with anti-semitism at East, raising another concern about background-based discrimination at East.
“Even though it might have been in a joking banter kind of setting, I’ve heard ‘filthy Jew’ being used,” said the senior student.
The student elaborated on this incident that took place in a study hall. After lending a dollar to a friend, another friend asked for a dollar. Upon hearing that the student did not have another dollar bill, the friend called the student a ‘filthy Jew.’
“I know he didn’t mean harm by it, but…you don’t just say that to someone,” said the student.
In addition, the student said they frequently hear the term “JAP,” which stands for a Jewish American Prince or Princess.
“Using the fact that [someone is] Jewish as the reason why they deserve to be called this term is anti-semitic,” said the student.
Overall, a significant number of students have faced discrimination at East because of their background.
Another student wrote, “You will always overhear someone being rude to another religion or ethnicity. It’s not spoken about, but it should be.”
East Principal Dr. Dennis Perry responded to Eastside’s findings, calling aspects:
When asked to respond to various aspects of Eastside’s findings about Cherry Hill East’s environment, Perry repeatedly expressed concern. “Concerning,” “sad,” “upsetting,” “terrible,” and “very troubling,” were among the adjectives Perry used in reaction to various statistics and written experiences collected by Eastside.
There are some positives, with a majority of students feeling welcome at East and around seven in ten (70.6 percent) feeling that they have a trusted adult at school with whom they can talk. However, the current state of affairs does not meet the expectations of Perry, nor does it provide many students with a safe learning environment. Perry has recently named creating a welcoming environment as key to fostering learning within the classroom.
Perry discussed multiple actions that he said could lead to improved circumstances. Recognizing faults in the community, Perry plans to take actions this upcoming year. These included increased dialogue between him and the student leaders of East’s culture clubs, and a possible expansion of representative garb allowed at graduation ceremonies. More broadly, he emphasized the importance of celebrating diversity. Finally, Perry said that people need to be made aware of students’ experiences, including through this Eastside report.
In summary, those experiences are various and, in many cases, concerning. From harassment in hallways to inequity in classrooms, East must reckon with the existence of discrimination in its community. Over decades of diversification in Cherry Hill, progress has undoubtedly been made. Yet, the fact remains: today, East is not a safe and welcoming environment for all students to learn.
Over decades of diversification in Cherry Hill, progress has undoubtedly been made. Yet, the fact remains: today, East is not a safe and welcoming environment for all students to learn.