After a whirlwind week that left both an Oak Park River Forest High School student and teacher suspended, protesters gathered Saturday morning outside the Oak Park Library to call for the teacher, Anthony Clark, to be reinstated.
The “A Voice for All” march started with a prayer circle featuring Clark’s aunt and uncle, as well as residents who know Clark; the teacher was suspended Thursday.
“When he does something he does it for the good of others because he’s an educator,” Helendora Samuels, Clark’s aunt, said. “I’m praying the community takes something positive from today, and they go in unity and love and peace to fight a negative spirit in the school.”
The problems started Oct. 8, when a 17-year-old student posted a photo of himself in blackface with a caption that read “Vote me for BLU president,” referring to the school group Black Leaders Union. Clark reposted the photo to his Suburban Unity Alliance Facebook page, but took it down when he found out the photo was of an Oak Park student. Clark then met with the student and his mother, hoping to mitigate tensions.
Amidst all that, the school on Friday received an anonymous letter threatening violence at Saturday’s homecoming dance. The school responded with a stronger police presence, and said any students who decided not to attend could get a refund on their $20 tickets.
Ronald Clark, Anthony’s father, said his son is hurt since he was “trying to help resolve the issue and be supportive.” Blanche Clark, Anthony’s mother, said she was “baffled” by the turn of events.
“The school should be embracing him, but instead he’s being ridiculed as a result of him trying to help,” Clark said. “Instead of this being a teachable moment it’s like they’re attacking our son. All he did was attempt to help this young man fix his mistake.”
At the protest and march, people spoke highly of Clark. Clark’s mother said this was not the first situation Clark mediated. When students were at risk for expulsion or needed help staying on track in school, he was there to help, she said.
Amy Renzulli, who knows the student and Clark, was there when they met. She said Clark told him “you’re not a victim, you need to learn and grow from this” but was willing to work with the student.
Clark’s suspension amplifies Oak Park’s problems, which is part of the reason why she attended Saturday’s protest.
“Everyone loves this community but it’s splintered and the ones who should be doing the healing and the leading are being kept apart,” Renzulli said. “This is bigger than the high school, this is about our community. He risked his job and his reputation for the person who hurt him the most.”
The high school has announced it will host a “Community Discussion on Race” at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24.
It’s unclear what will happen with Clark, but a petition is being circulated to get him reinstated. The student has been suspended for five days.
In an interview with the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, the student said the photo he posted was of him using a facial treatment. He offered to identify himself to take full responsibility, but the newspaper said it was against policy to identify minors accused of wrongdoing.
Going forward, Clark’s parents said they hope for reinstatement and though they find the student’s photo offensive, they hope there is a way forward for all of them.
“I must stand here and say I’m impressed the young man claimed his mistake and it’s remarkable he took credit,” Ronald Clark said. “I’ve made mistakes but as a result you become a better person. I think he will too as a result of his mistake. I’m just proud my son came to mind when they sought out help to resolve this.”