In 2019, John Handley High School’s dropout rate was approximately 7.1 percent, with chronic absenteeism of 24 percent — most of which Black students accounted for, according to the Virginia Department of Education, Because of Them We Can reports.

Those numbers could represent how much Black students at the school feel excluded on a daily basis.

After struggling to see themselves properly represented in the school’s population, one student set out to change that by creating an organization to encourage more inclusion.

Eunice Mejiadeu — a 17-year-old senior — shared that as a young Black woman, she never felt like she truly belonged at her school.

“When we look at Handley, there’s not really this, I guess a safe place to come together. There’s a lot of self-isolation,” she said to Winchester News. “We just got kind of tired of just not feeling like we mattered, and I don’t think that was the intention Handley wanted to bring, and I feel like it just gradually happened over time.”

Those feelings of isolation prompted her and her friends to create the school’s first Black Student Union since the learning institution was first founded.

“I just thought why not make a space where we can both promote education and also promote unity at Handley,” she said.

According to Winchester News, the club’s mission is aimed at helping students achieve academic excellence, promote positive images of young Black students, and help others become an integral part of the school community.

Despite being called the Black Student Union, Mejiadeu says the organization welcomes students of all races to join.

Handley’s Black Student Union proved to be a much-needed space for students as a survey conducted by the school revealed a significant number of them also felt out of place at the school.

The results yielded that only 31 percent of the 962 students who responded said they felt a sense of belonging at Handley. Another survey conducted by the Department of Criminal Justice Services found that 44 percent of respondents said Handley students are teased or put down because of their race or ethnicity, Winchester News reports.

According to the organization’s by-laws, Handley’s Black Student Union is designed to promote more inclusion, which includes appointing more students of color to higher-level classes. Thus, reducing school absences, the school’s dropout rate, and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education success.

The organization also encourages club members to volunteer at local nonprofit groups and seek scholarships specifically for students of color.

Although Mejiadeu helped to create the school’s first Black Student Union, another group called Minorities Concerns was founded in the late 1980s or early 1990s to give students of color a safe space to share their grievances in and out of school, Tom Dixon — former Handley teacher and basketball coach who was involved with the group — told Winchester News.

He shared that students in the group were often “frustrated because of the way they were treated in class. There were a lot of kids who were angry, some for very legit reasons why they were angry, because they just weren’t being treated right.”

Dixon is happy to see the inception of the Black Student Union and the students in charge of it, noting that Minorities Concerns faced some backlash during its existence.

“It’s a chance for them to be together,” he said. “It’s also a chance to make progress.”

Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum welcomes the new group stating:

“We are committed to amplifying and empowering the voice of our students, while acknowledging and celebrating our areas of difference. The Black Student Union at John Handley High School is another example of how we are systematically supporting all of our students so they can thrive and develop positive self-efficacy through empowerment.”

Congratulations are in order for Mejiadeu and all of the Handley Black Student Union members for making history and shaping a better future.