TCAPS Board Addresses Racist Snapchat Incident; Police Investigation Underway
The board members of Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) received nearly an hour of public comment Monday from angry community members demanding disciplinary action and curriculum changes following a racist incident involving Snapchat students. Erica Moon Mohr, board member of TCAPS and chair of the curriculum committee, said she plans to advance an “accelerated” approach to the inclusion of more diverse and anti-racist materials in district classes while Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner said TCAPS will offer “immediate” guest speakers and lessons to students about diversity and inclusivity. The board members said they were “devastated” and “embarrassed” about the incident, which has led to a legal investigation into the students’ actions.
Several students from TCAPS and other local school districts exchanged messages through a Snapchat group called “Slave Trafficking” posting racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-disabled and other hateful comments on classmates. The group assigned bid values to color students and posted notes such as “Let’s Have Another Holocaust” and “All Blacks Should Die.” Other students alerted district officials to the group’s existence and initiated both an internal TCAPS investigation and an investigation by the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office. According to Captain Randy Fewless, the sheriff’s office, an investigator will be interviewing individuals on the case this week.
“We are currently investigating it as an illegal posting of a message,” Fewless told The Ticker. “It is really too early to say what might be in the investigation, as there are still a few people to be contacted … the prosecutor has been consulted and they have told us of the crime that could possibly be true.”
Under Michigan law, unlawful message posting covers online messages that result in inconsistent contact with people, or conduct in which people “experience emotional distress and terrorize, frighten, intimidate, threaten, harass or harass themselves feel”. The crime is a crime and can be punished with up to two years in prison and / or a fine of up to $ 5,000. In certain circumstances – for example, if the message poses credible threats to the victim or the victim’s household – the penalties can be more severe.
After news of the incident was released last week, Northern Michigan local anti-racism working group E3 issued an open letter to TCAPS asking officials to acknowledge that it was a racist act – the early one District language called her a “very serious and inappropriate incident”. – and to request anti-racism advice from the pupils involved and their parents / guardians. The letter also urges TCAPS to support the students and families traumatized by the Snapchat group, and to bring community partners such as Northern Michigan E3 in contact with the district’s Social Equity Task Force to review curricula and guidelines. By Monday, over 500 people had signed the open letter.
Jala Sue Wharton and her daughter Nevaeh – a 15-year-old Traverse City Central High School student who was mentioned in the Snapchat group – spoke to TCAPS board members on Monday. Jala Sue said TCAPS needed to “better educate” students on diversity issues and described the pain she felt when she saw her daughter approached on the social media group. “Neither parent wants their child to be hurt … that’s the next level,” she said. Jala Sue, referring to the posts about dying blacks, said, “This is not a joke. I believe this should be taken extremely seriously and addressed in a way that will keep her safe. This is a human life and no child should go through this. Nevaeh told board members that she wanted the community to be “a better and safer place” for all members, adding, “I think the first step is better education. These types of topics aren’t discussed a lot in school and I think the first step in improving this community is to talk more about them and educate people about them more. “
Other members of the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) community shared their own experiences with TCAPS board members on Monday, including discrimination and hateful incidents as former students or children who have these issues now. Dana Greensky said her family recently had to take legal action against a Leelanau County student who molested her daughter, while Courtney Wiggins said her son – a Central Grade School student – had faced discrimination and bullying. “This is part of everyday life for people with color, and it’s really difficult for us,” she said. While the subject may be “uncomfortable” for TCAPS officials, Wiggins said, she urged the district “to think about how uncomfortable it feels to us.”
Following a public comment on Monday, VanWagoner read a prepared statement describing the Snapchat incident as “racist, anti-Semitic and discriminatory,” condemning the behavior of the students involved, and praising the students who volunteered to report the group. VanWagoner said the district’s Social Equity Task Force will prepare an anti-discrimination resolution for the TCAPS board to pass at an upcoming meeting. Other steps taken by the committee include expanding staff training and professional development on issues of diversity and social justice, bringing additional guest speakers and inclusivity lessons to the classroom immediately, and continuing to review the committee’s curriculum to address “gaps identify those that need to be fixed “. Curriculum Committee Chair and TCAPS Board Member Erica Moon Mohr said she was “outraged” by the case and “determined to call for changes to the TCAPS curriculum” to better address issues of diversity and inclusivity.
Scott Newman-Bale, chairman of the board of directors of the TCAPS, noted that the school’s privacy laws and an open police investigation, including the names of the students involved and any disciplinary action, prevented district officials from discussing many aspects of the case. For example, TCAPS cannot confirm whether the students involved have been removed from school, Newman-Bale said. He and other board members expressed shock and disappointment over the incident, which Flournoy Humphreys described as “mean, disgusting and disgusting”. Humphreys said TCAPS must incorporate anti-racism measures in its curriculum, guidelines and “daily practice at our sites” to ensure students feel safe and staff feel empowered to report inappropriate behavior.
“Our response – that is, our school board, how we deal with this incident – will not only define who we are,” said Humphreys, “but also prove who we are as a TCAPS society and as a Traverse City as a community.”