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Dozens of Anchorage Christian Schools alumni say they experienced racism there. Church leaders say they’re trying to heal the damage.

Joshua Branstetter walks along a trail Thursday, July 2, 2020 at Cheney Lake. As a high school student at Anchorage Christian Schools, Branstetter used to run along these trails with the cross country team. Branstetter is among dozens of Anchorage Christian Schools alumni who are now publicly speaking out against the racism they say they endured at the school. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Dozens of Anchorage Christian Schools alumni are publicly speaking out against racism they say they experienced while attending the private school. They are calling for changes to the pre-K-12 school and its parent institution, Anchorage Baptist Temple.

In June, more than 50 former students spoke out on social media and publicly shared stories of their experiences. The group also sent a list of demands for reform to leaders of the school and church.

Students of color “were molded by an environment that made them think they were ‘othered’ and ‘less than’ and the ‘brunt of the joke,‘” said Joshua Albeza Branstetter, a 33-year-old ACS alumni and half-Filipino man who is one of the former students publicly sharing his experience. “But it was guided not by students; it was guided by our educators — and they’re still doing it.”

The stories alumni have shared include a biracial former student and athlete who recalls a coach joking that Black girls “smelled weird”; a Korean-American former student who recalls being complimented for her “good English” and a biracial former student who recalls being called “jungle boy” by a staff member.

The group also points to the church’s practice of separating the Sunday school classes of the kids who ride the church’s buses from the classes of children who drive with their families as a type of segregation that singles out children of color and children from a lower socioeconomic status.

Faced with the outpouring of stories and accusations, church leaders say they are reaching out to the alumni, investigating the assertions and taking steps to address the issue.

“Hearing these stories, whether I know the whole context or not, does break my heart,” said the church’s leader, Pastor Ron Hoffman, a longtime staff member of both the church and school.

Hoffman has declared publicly that the church “condemns all acts of racism,” in a letter published in the Anchorage Daily News and in Facebook posts.

“Over the past couple weeks, we have been listening, learning and ultimately reflecting,” he wrote in his letter.

Still, many former church members and alumni say problems with racism are ongoing, and that the institution continues practices in the school and the church that they say contribute to the issue.

“When I went to ACS I didn’t realize I was stepping into an environment that would reinforce what I was already feeling so much shame over — that it’s not cool to be who I am,” Branstetter said. “That I’m the brunt of the joke. And that as a minority, you are meant to be complicit.”

The group say their goal is to expose what they say was often a harmful environment, where racial slurs and stereotypes were used as insults and normalized as jokes by some faculty and students.

Anna Simmers, a 2009 ACS graduate and a biracial 29-year-old whose mother is Black and father is white, is leading the group’s effort for change at the school and church. She is a West Point graduate and former Army officer who now lives in Florida.

Anna Simmers and Nick Castillo take a self-portrait at West Point before a parade in 2013. Simmers and Castillo were classmates at ACS, and Castillo a year behind Simmers at West Point. (Photo courtesy of Anna Simmers)

Simmers said she has gathered more than 120 testimonies from recent graduates, current students, church members, alumni of color, white alumni, parents and former church members. Only about 50 that could be verified by witnesses or by other similar accounts have been shared publicly, Simmers said. Many stories were not shared because those who told them are still involved in the school or church and are afraid of the possible consequences, she said.

“Some of us have lived all over the place and the most racist environment we ever were in? It was a Christian school in Anchorage, Alaska,” she said. “It is just crazy.”

The Anchorage Daily News has interviewed and gathered statements from 14 former Anchorage Christian Schools students and Anchorage Baptist Temple members who spoke about their experiences and interviewed members of the church’s leadership about their response to the claims.

The congregation has recently undergone changes in its top leadership. Hoffman took over as pastor when Rev. Jerry Prevo retired last year after 47 years. Prevo intertwined Baptist evangelism with conservative politics, establishing the church as a political powerhouse in Alaska.

“Obviously, these things happened outside of my authority and/or position. And we certainly are looking at every one of these extremely seriously,” Hoffman said, referring to the students’ stories.

Hoffman has worked as an athletic coach in the school and spent 25 years as the pastor of the youth ministry at the church.

Church leadership is reaching out directly to those who have shared their stories publicly, he said.

The church announced last month that Calvin Hoffman, Pastor Hoffman’s son, will be executive director of student ministry and chief operations officer for Anchorage Christian Schools, overseeing the school’s administration.

“Clearly there have been former students who are hurt,” Calvin Hoffman said. “And we want to do what we can to reconcile, to bring healing.”

Ashley Ko attended ACS from 2005 to 2010, from third to seventh grade. She says her experiences with racism at the school included being told to ’go back to China ’ by a student. Ko spent the last year in the Zambia Peace Corps and is pursuing a master's in International and Intercultural Communications. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Ko)

Former student Ashley Ko, who attended the school from 2005 to 2010, is one of the students who shared her experience with Simmers. Ko said during her time at ACS, she buried her Korean and Asian American identity.

“When I did well on a math test or in a math competition, I was told it was because I am Asian. I was complimented on my ‘good English’ and asked where I was ‘really from,‘” she said.

Embarrassed by the stereotyping, she said, she stopped eating Korean food at school, doing taekwondo and playing piano.

It took years for Ko to embrace her Korean heritage again, she said.

“My relationship with Christianity was shattered by my experience at ACS,” she said. “What I saw at ACS was that to be Christian was to hate those who were different from you.”

Simmers said one coach would make fun of Black girls for their physical attributes like their hair and what the coach called “big Black butts” and she remembers him often making jokes about Black girls “smelling weird.”

Anna Simmers, center, playing basketball for ACS in March 2008. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Simmers’ brother, Uri, said that as a young boy that same staff member called him “monkey” and “jungle boy.”

That educator has since left the school, according to Scott Levesque, communications director for the church and school.

Uri said the name-calling from students continued until he graduated in 2016.

A demand for reform that began on social media

The police killing of George Floyd in May sparked nationwide upheaval and protests against racism and police treatment of Black people.

Simmers said she became upset when she saw current and former ACS faculty posting what she called “tone-deaf” memes about racism and Floyd on Facebook. She confronted one teacher about the racism she said she had experienced at ACS in a comment. Simmers said that in reactions by other commenters associated with the church and school, it seemed like no one knew what she was talking about.

Simmers said she felt baffled.

Anna Simmers in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Anna Simmers)

Other alumni of color began sharing experiences. After reaching out to former classmates, her email inbox and Facebook direct messages began filling with their stories, she said.

“There’s too many stories and there’s too much pain here. Something has to be done with this,” Simmers said she thought.

Simmers partnered with Ariane Audett, Miss Alaska 2016 and an ACS alum and who wrote a public letter to the church on Facebook asking for change.

Simmers and Audett said they heard many stories from students and their parents about approaching ACS faculty and administration about racism and finding their concerns were brushed off, or that serious consequences were not enacted.

They decided to share the stories in a Facebook thread.

“After decades of our voices not being heard, we are now telling our stories to the body of the church in hopes that there will be accountability that will lead to a change in behavior,” the letter states.

They sent church leaders a list of suggested changes: That the institution implement mandatory race and cultural sensitivity training for staff and faculty; hire staff and faculty of color; implement a zero-tolerance policy for racial slurs and harassment; expand the teaching curriculum to include more Black American history; and integrate the church’s Sunday school classes so that kids who ride in on the church’s buses are no longer “segregated” from kids who drive to church with their families.

The church began using buses in the 1970s to bring kids from across Anchorage to service on Sundays, Pastor Hoffman said.

That Sunday school classes for the kids who ride buses have historically been kept separate has to do with the logistics of keeping track of hundreds of schoolchildren and ensuring their safety, he said. Those children represent a wide range of socioeconomic class and races, he said. Since 2008, only children below grade six have separate groups, Hoffman said.

The Anchorage Baptist Temple and Anchorage Christian Schools on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Alumni and former church members say the kids who ride the bus are predominately of color or from families of lesser means.

“Whatever the intent, this practice is wrong, reminiscent of a painful period in Black American history and clearly demeaning,” the letter said.

“This practice promotes a poor self image amongst bus kids and reinforces harmful biases in children in the church. It creates an idea of a social hierarchy that carries into adulthood. There is no reason for these children to be segregated for even one more Sunday,” the letter said.

Calvin Hoffman said during an interview that while he can’t say he will implement all of the group’s requests for changes as they’ve specified exactly, he is listening to them and learning from them.

School faculty will soon undergo diversity training, he said.

“We are considering the best steps to take as an organization to create a healthy and life-giving environment for our students,” he said. “That being said, the demands that the former alumni have put forth, some of those demands are great ideas, and we are looking into the best solution.”

Levesque said that ACS and its faculty strive to give the same education, love and support to all students.

Simmers said some students and teachers did or said “horrible things.”

“But there were a lot of good people — a large majority of them were good — they were just completely ignorant. So they didn’t even understand what was going on in front of their faces,” Simmers said.

That’s why the group’s demands focus mostly on bringing education and understanding of racial issues to the community, she said.

Lingering hurt and a search for reconciliation

Joshua Albeza Branstetter remembers hearing a racial slur referring to a Black person after he bungled a high jump during an Anchorage Christian Schools track and field practice in 2002.

”I thought you had a little n----- in you!” he said someone yelled. Branstetter, who still lives in Anchorage, said he often heard racial slurs and jokes from classmates after he started at the school as a freshman.

But this time was different: It was an ACS staff member who said it, Branstetter said.

Joshua Branstetter, who ran track and cross country as a student at Anchorage Christian Schools, points to a picture of himself in a yearbook on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

He said it deepened the shame Branstetter felt about his identity as a person of color.

Several of Branstetter’s former classmates have since apologized for using racist remarks and stereotypes, but he said he doesn’t hold them responsible.

“We were kids,” Branstetter said. “Our educators were setting the standards.”

Other students interviewed by ADN also recall the same staff member using various racial slurs as jokes and teasing. That staff member still works at the school.

Branstetter’s experience with the staff member is one that the church is looking into, Calvin Hoffman said.

“We’re looking into all of the allegations that have been brought forth. We want to respond based on facts and concrete information that we are actively pursuing to find,” he said.

“The important thing to us is that we get the facts we need to make the best decision, and there’s no decision left off the table for sure,” Levesque said.

Branstetter is now a 33-year-old father and filmmaker, but he says his experience at ACS still affects his life.

“I found success in my life but it’s like there’s this hole eating away,” Branstetter said. “Why do I feel like I haven’t resolved everything? Because it’s never been reconciled.”

Pastor Hoffman and son Calvin both say the church is looking for ways to help heal the community.

“We are looking for forgiveness. That is something that the Bible is very clear we as believers are to pursue,” Calvin Hoffman said. “And we are looking to really, hopefully, have that repentance and forgiveness that takes place between two individuals when there is a grievance.”

School leadership will reexamine the school’s policy handbook to “ensure that we can put some policies in place where we can have a better disciplinary action towards instances of racism within our organization. and higher accountability even when those things take place,” Calvin Hoffman said.

Joshua Branstetter walks along a trail Thursday, July 2, 2020 at Cheney Lake. As a high school student at Anchorage Christian Schools, Branstetter used to run along these trails with the cross country team. Branstetter is among dozens of Anchorage Christian Schools alumni who are now publicly speaking out against the racism they say they endured at the school, including from his cross country coach. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Branstetter said that if the church sidesteps the changes alumni are asking for, it won’t fix the issue. He’s unhappy that at least one staff member who used racial slurs when he was a student is still at the school.

”They are not addressing the problem,” Branstetter said. “They are trying to dismiss it; they’re hoping that we will just say our piece and be done with it. But I’ve had to live with this for 15 years. And that’s not OK.”

Branstetter and some other former students say that changes to leadership staff at the church and school are necessary for real change to take place, but he believes that isn’t likely, he said.

Simmers is hopeful that the Hoffman leadership will begin making some changes.

“I have no desire to tear down ACS/ABT or belittle the massive amount of good and great education they have provided for countless families,” Simmers said in the Facebook post accompanying stories from other former students. “This is done to ensure that the people there understand fully that there is a deep rooted problem that will take work and intentionality to address to prevent future harm to students and the community.”

Now, Simmers said in an interview, “I’m just waiting to see if they’ll actually do something.”

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