Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) met with 15 Loudoun high school students of Asian and Pacific Islander descent Thursday in a closed-door meeting to discuss the harassment they’ve received amid a string of recent violence towards Asian Americans across the country.
Northam was joined by members of his administration, lawmakers, school administration and board members at Freedom High School before touring the Dulles District school.
As part of a series of discussions the administration is expected to have across the commonwealth, Northam said he hopes to take the students’ comments and suggestions and turn them into action.
“They were just so forthcoming, and I think really gave us a lot to think about,” Northam said to the Times-Mirror. "We're listeners and the more we listen, the more we learn, the more we know, and the more we can do.”
“And so, our staff is here, and we'll go back to Richmond and really try to turn a lot of what we heard into the policy and action,” Northam said.
Shortly after a mass shooting in Atlanta, where eight people were killed, including six women of Asian descent, Northam urged Virginians to support members of the AAPI communities.
He said at the time that the harassment, violence, and attacks "must stop” and called on Virginians to help end “this dangerous rhetoric, fear, and intimidation and condemn hate and bigotry in all its forms.”
Students of Asian decent make up 25 percent of student population in Loudoun County, according to a recent school system fact sheet. Asian Americans, meanwhile, make up 20.3% of the county population, according to the 2019 Census. Across Virginia, Asian Americans make up 6.9 percent.
“I expect that everyone in the room who's a decision maker will walk away a little bit better informed about what the children and their families are feeling as a result of everything that's gone on,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District).
The governor met with the group of students for nearly an hour, according to school officials.
Reaser said the discussion was valuable. She was joined by School Board Member Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn District), who felt the need to be present as the first Asian, Indian and Muslim American to sit on the dais.
"They spoke from the heart and spoke clearly about what they're feeling and what processes they were going through,” Mahedavi said.
Scott Ziegler, interim superintendent for Loudoun County Public Schools, said he was struck by the racism the students said they have experienced.
“When I meet with students and hear their stories and hear their hurt, it makes me realize that we have a lot of work to do in this area still,” Ziegler said.
He said the school system “will continue to be a leader in the area of equity and making our schools safe, welcoming and affirming for all of our students.”
Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87th), who attended the session, recently along colleagues in the General Assembly launched the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Caucus. The caucus urged the AAPI community to engage with the group, and to address how crime and harassment against the AAPI community go often underreported and to address underreported targets of crime and harassment, to help them develop policy changes.
Subramanyam said the students brought up important issues and shared insightful stories about their experiences with bullying and subtle racism or stereotyping. He also commended the school system for its efforts to address the concerns from communities of color.
“I still think there’s work to do, but I think conversations like this help us stay on the right track,” Subramanyam said.
The caucus’ listening tour kicked off Friday to gather feedback from the AAPI community about issues with recent violence and harassment targeting Asians across the country.
One of the goals of the caucus is to address the underreported many sentiments and crimes against Asian Americans.
He added that Thursday’s roundtable was reactive to the discourse across the country.
"We're trying to ensure that future generations don't have to endure what some of what past generations have when it comes to bullying and when it comes to the treatment of people of color,” Subramanyam said.
“That starts with students and our young people, because if they are not agents of change, then we have work to do to build a better future.”