(CNN) – In a winter wonderland of holiday lights and music, Royal Oak, Michigan, just outside Detroit, is a community trying to heal itself.
A video of seventh graders chanting “build a wall”, catapulted Royal Oak’s middle school into the national spotlight the day after Donald Trump won the election.
Best friends Isabelle Castilla and Josie Ramon were in the lunchroom that day along with a few other Hispanic students. This is the first time the girls have told their story publicly.
Isabelle said, “All of a sudden you hear some kids chanting something and then it gets louder and then you hear what they’re saying and then they’re banging their hands against the tables.”
She fled to the bathroom in tears, leaving a frightened Josie behind; “It was so hard, because these are my friends and I see them just saying these awful things. And it was so hard to look and just watch and not being able to do anything because I was afraid.”
The girls said this is not the first time they have witnessed and reported racism at the predominately white middle school. So Josie took out her phone and recorded what she witnessed, texting the video to her mom.
Josie said, “Nobody had really listened to me, I just needed evidence to show my mom and dad. It wouldn’t be my word against theirs.”
Shocked and concerned, Alicia Ramon sent the video privately to a few middle school parents. It was one of those parents, not Alicia, who shared it on Facebook. Within hours, the video went viral, generating millions of views and a backlash of anger toward the school.
Shawn Lewis-Lakin, Royal Oak Schools Superintendent, said, “The attention that prompts us to grow and improve is welcomed intention. Condemnation of the entire school and community, threats against the school and community are all at an unwelcome level of attention that was very disruptive.”
He said police were brought in to patrol the campus, to ease parents’ concerns, but fearful families wanted more.
Josie said, “They said I should have been suspended or even expelled.”
Isabelle said, “They’re saying that it’s Josie’s fault for taking the video. This would never would have happened if she didn’t take it.”
Just a week after the build a wall chant went viral, Royal Oak Middle School was rocked again. This time when a noose was found in a boy’s bathroom.”
(Your reaction to that?) Shawn said, “Profoundly troubling. Immediately was over at the middle school. Making sure that the investigation was fully engaged, that the police were onsite because an incident of that magnitude goes beyond just school discipline.”
That student was quickly identified and has since been expelled, but Isabelle and Josie remember the fear they felt when they heard what was found.
Josie said, “I was terrified. I was so scared. I was afraid that they’re going to hurt me or Isabelle.”
The back to back incidents have sparked action among mothers in this community, who along with Alicia Ramon, want the pain to bring positive change.
Carmen Wargel said, “It’s important that we make it very clear that this isn’t who royal oak is, that we are better than this.”
They’re working closely with the superintendent, advocating for more diversity training for teachers and students and a review of the curriculum.
That is welcome news for the school’s future, but unfortunately, Josie felt so ostracized at Royal Oak that she has withdrawn and is now attending a private school.
Josie said, “I was tired of how they were treating me. I couldn’t take it any longer. They would glare at me. People would see me in the hallways and turn around and walk the other way.” (That doesn’t feel very good at all.) “No, I felt like an animal.”
Just one week after starting the new school, Josie’s family already sees a difference; “She was joking. She was funny. She was back to her usual self, a kid I hadn’t seen since this happened. It was like seeing a weight that was lifted off her shoulders.”
And while Josie feels badly leaving her best friend behind at Royal Oak middle, she is looking forward to the future and has no regrets; “I think if I had to go through this again to help everybody else who’s Mexican-American, I would do it a thousand, a million, a quadrillion more times.”