A new student-led organization that aims to unite the black students of the Olentangy Local School District has its first official gathering under its belt.

The Black Students of Olentangy, aka Black Olentangy, held an organizational meeting earlier this month and began discussing a framework for promoting African-American culture and history and combating racism in the district.

The group, which is not affiliated with the district, identifies itself as "a black community where students can be free to express."

It was formed in response to a March outcry from several black students. They addressed the school board during a meeting, telling members about racial comments, jokes, jeers and epithets they said they often endure from other students.

"In middle school, people started to say black jokes about me. It was the first time I got called the N-word," Black Olentangy co-organizer Jade Davis said.

Now a junior at Liberty High School, Davis said she was called the N-word three times in a matter of weeks early in her freshman year.

Her father, Robert Davis, said his daughter has attended Olentangy schools her entire life.

"It's gone up as the years have gone by," he said, adding people feel "emboldened" to use racist language.

In May, as a response to the students' request, the Olentangy school board approved adjustments to district handbooks to more clearly define what constitutes intimidation, bullying, sexual harassment and hazing.

The handbooks now state such actions and comments will result in a suspension from school, as opposed to the previous wording of "may result."

Robert Davis said he believes more can be done to strengthen the handbook language and discipline for students who use racial epithets and threats.

"Kids have the right to go to school without feeling threatened," he said. "It's more than being bullied."

Black Olentangy co-organizer Mia Lapointe, a senior at Orange High School, agreed.

"Racism is separate from bullying. You can use racism to bully, but they are two separate things," Lapointe said. "I want to look back and be proud about where I went to school."

Olentangy's student body is about 76.7 percent white, 11.7 percent Asian, 4 percent black, 3.1 percent Hispanic and 4.2 percent multiracial, according to the Ohio Department of Education's 2017 district report card.

The district has a diversity committee and several schools, including elementary schools, have diversity clubs.

"In spring 2018, the Olentangy Board of Education approved more stringent language in the student handbook as it applies to student discipline in racially motivated incidents," district communications director Krista Davis said.

"While some may believe the language isn't strong enough, we believe it creates clearer guidelines and expectations for the district, and opportunities to educate and change behaviors."

Black Olentangy welcomes all Olentangy students, regardless of grade level or ethnic background, Lapointe said.

She said she would like to see all cultures celebrated more by the schools.

"You're not encouraged to be yourself," Lapointe said. "We want to focus on the three C's of community, culture and celebration. We put 'black community' because we don't feel at home in our school."

Allen Gaines saw a post about the meeting on Facebook and said he was dismayed at some of the responses. The Powell resident said he is biracial and encounters people who are "resistant to the idea that any kind of racism exists.

"You really have to walk in other people's shoes to appreciate what they're telling you," Gaines said. "Perception is reality. If someone feels they're being treated a certain way, then in effect, they are."

Black Olentangy plans to elect officers at its next meeting and hopes to host a districtwide event in October, Davis said.

The group plans to host bi-monthly meetings and events, distribute a monthly newsletter and engage parents in advocating for change.

"We want to continue spreading our message so other students know they're not alone," Davis said.

The Black Students of Olentangy can be found on social media at www.facebook.com/olentangyblackstudents, instagram.com/blackstudents.olsd and twitter.com/blackolentangy and can be reached by texting "blackol" to 81010.

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