DHS community hurt, angered by videos of white students saying racial slurs

The Decatur High School administration held a virtual meeting with 200+ students to discuss the situation and listen to community input.

A+student+presents+to+the+CSD+Board+of+Education+on+behalf+of+the+Beacon+Hill+Black+Alliance+for+Human+Rights%2C+2018.

A student presents to the CSD Board of Education on behalf of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, 2018.

During the week of April 20, three videos showing white Decatur High School students saying a racial slur began to circulate on social media, through the online platform Snapchat and then in texts to other students. Upon viewing the videos, many DHS students were outraged; some students relayed their disappointment to their parents, while others reached out to the school directly to complain. Facebook groups and an official email from DHS made the rest of the community aware of the videos’ contents. 

The slur used is commonly called the “n-word” by non-black people. It is rooted in racism that you can read about in this opinion piece.

On April 28, the CSD office of Equity and Students Support and representatives from the DHS staff facilitated a “Speaking and Listening Opportunity” to offer students a “chance to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas” regarding the videos, interim principal, Wesley Hatfield said. The attendance was close to 200 students. 

Students were divided into three groups based on the initial of their first name, so that more people could have a chance to speak in the 90 minute meeting. Mari Ann Banks, the District Equity Coordinator, who facilitated a conversation among students, was surprised but thrilled about the number of attendees. 

“My group was so full that there may have not been enough time for every student to speak as much as they may have desired,” Banks said. “However, those who did were passionate in articulating their feelings and I was proud to see them willing to be so candid.”

Banks’ primary concern while leading her group was to help them heal. She recognizes that “there is a deep and painful history associated with [the n-word], particularly when the word is used by a white identified person.” 

Students who attended the meeting largely agree that it was a positive step towards addressing the videos, as students were given a platform to express their feelings to their peers and the administration. 

Sophomore Vinessa Taylor worried that the meeting would be executed poorly, but instead was reassured, as many others were.  

“I expected the meeting to sort of go bad, I thought people were going to be joking or playing with such a serious matter, but I was surprised that most students took it seriously,” Taylor said.

Dr. Kimberly Jones, who heads the Counseling Department at DHS, led a group during the meeting and said she “was also moved by the candor and maturity of the participants.”

Uncertainty about how the videos should be handled by the administration has been voiced by community members, as they were created and published outside of school. However, students feel the school should intervene. 

“Many of the people in our school would feel uncomfortable around the people in these videos, knowing that they used this kind of language, junior Evan Kupersmith said. “This creates a bad learning environment and all around a negative atmosphere.” 

Junior Bethani Thomas said that how the administration deals with this incident will set a standard for the future. So, she believes strong measures of punishment are necessary.

“If the situation is not handled in a more drastic, authoritative way, things like this will just keep happening over and over again,” Thomas said. “If [this goes unpunished], kids will soon realize that there is no consequence in using a racial slur.”

As a black woman, Thomas believes that “hearing people use a slur that they are not obliged to use is just hurtful.” The background of the n-word, Thomas said, “can’t be ignored when people have no cultural right to use it.”

“I understand that the context in which people are using the word is not to bring pain, but the fact of the matter is that this slur has brought so much hate over the years that the significance is still there,” Thomas said. “I feel as though if [there is no punishment] we will soon go back to a time where using racial slurs against people of color was just the norm, and I don’t want to see history repeat itself.”

A student listens at a Students Organizing for Anti-Racism (SOAR) meeting. The club was created by the DHS administration this past year.

During her group’s meeting, Taylor referred to the CSD code of conduct for using racial slurs, which, pursuant to Rule 10b, is two days of In School Suspension (ISS). To Taylor, this consequence is not an adequate punishment. 

Thomas believes similarly. She points out that the punishment of two days of ISS is the same as a fight would result in. 

“This is nothing like a fight, this is a word that’s been used to hate on African-Americans and black people for centuries and the punishment for using this word should be implemented swiftly,” Thomas said.

Senior Emily Miranda, among others, said that expelling the other students is the best option.

“If those girls are not kicked out of DHS, then Decatur really isn’t Decatur… the meeting would have been pointless and I would believe the district really doesn’t care about student’s opinions,” she said. 

Miranda graduates this week, and while she won’t be returning to the high school next year, she still felt that it was important to speak up in the meeting on behalf of not only herself, but her two younger siblings.

“It fills me with anger that they will be going to a school where they are going to see how the white community is treated differently and that has become the norm,” Miranda said.

She woke up to the videos and was angered not only by their contents, but also by some following posts where the students tried to justify their behavior. However, Miranda, like Thomas and Taylor, said that she wasn’t surprised because this isn’t the first time white students at Decatur have said racial slurs.

Daxton Pettus, co-president of the DHS Black Student Union (BSU), said that this series of incidents is a reflection of many others.

“It happened my freshmen year, sophomore year and this year, junior year, it’s nothing new. The only difference is that this time, it’s been circulated on social media,” he said.

Co-President Daxton Pettus, center, and other students in Decatur’s Black Student Union at the Georgia Capitol to discuss the legacy of Decatur’s Confederate Monument with legislators, 2019.

Other students were shocked by the videos’ contents, including Kupersmith. Before this, he thought Decatur’s demographics meant that students were more aware of the painful history behind the “n-word” than other parts of the country, and was disappointed to discover that this is not the reality.  

Taylor hopes that these incidents will spearhead further conversation on racial issues and inequalities so that “we can grow as a community,” especially considering Decatur’s mission to be equitable.

”I was sort of sad to find out because I always thought Decatur was different since they preach diversity and inclusiveness so much… Hopefully, Decatur will work harder to be the place they advertise as,” Taylor said.

After the virtual meeting the administration hosted, Mr. Hatfield called with seniors Liza Watson and Dylan Kyle, President and Vice-President of BSU, respectively, about prospective policy changes and their perspectives. Watson called for transparency, and a grievance process to be enacted in the district, something that local anti-racism organization the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, has requested for years.

“There has to be an institution that’s going to support students the entire way,” Watson said. 

She also noted that DHS will have to take some serious steps to continue any momentum these incidents may have garnered towards change.

“A lot of black students expressed how they feel like the administration has consistently failed them,” Watson said. “Which was a good point to bring up to the administration because I think sometimes they like to brush things off and say yeah, we’re working on it, and then nothing really gets done, so I think this was a key moment for the DHS administration to get it together.”

Kyle said that incidents like this bring to light what are otherwise more hidden sentiments in Decatur.

“Most citizens of Decatur have done everything in their power to make everything equal,” he said. “However, there are still people in the community who go against the morals, citizens in this city stand for. Being able to see what goes on behind closed doors is the realistic way of how any community is run.”

BSU co-President Liza Watson speaks at a protest, 2019.

Miranda as well echoed that behind all the awards and high test results, DHS struggles with serious issues like drug and alcohol use among students, mental health issues, and racism.

“Decatur is portrayed as a small loving community where you can walk down the street and see friends and neighbors which is somewhat true,” she said. “But when you start looking deep you see Decatur’s true self.”

Watson said that while it’s not always easy to be an activist or confront racism, she says “maybe it’s time to pop the liberal bubble.” Personally, she’s felt drained when incidents happen in her IB classes, where she is the only, or one of the few non-white people in the room, and no one else speaks up.

Pettus voiced concerns of the lack of white students speaking up during the meeting. Banks agrees. She would have liked to hear white students speak of the “historical nature of the deep injury caused by the use of the [n-word.]” 

Kyle said that one of the reasons he spoke at the meeting was to set an example for future leaders.

“No matter what race you are… if you stand up for what you believe in, others will recognize some wrongdoings on their behalf,” he said.

Reactions from parents surveyed by 3ten varied. The videos sparked some parents to have conversations with their families about the impact and history of the slur. 

“It reminds me to continue having hard conversations with my children so they neither act like this nor let their peers get away with such behaviors,” Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge said. 

Similarly, parent Martee Rodi hopes this incident serves as a starting point for “many in the community- admin, parents, teachers, neighbors, students would write and speak about the experiences in Decatur that highlight the racism that exists here and what they are doing personally to combat it.“

Some black parents parents repeated familiar uneasy conversations previously voiced in the past, as they are accustomed to the use of racial slurs against them and others.

Parents surveyed largely believe a punishment should result. Some see expulsion as the only reasonable course of action, while others believe activities lending to reflection are needed. These parents suggest participating in diversity/inclusion lessons, conducting a research project on racism, volunteering or enrolling in an African American history class would suffice better. 

Next year, for the first time, DHS will offer a black history course.

Some parents reciprocate students’ cries for policy to be strengthened. 

“There are other districts in GA and around the US which have an actual zero tolerance policy to racist language and acts. We should adopt and actually follow through with the same type of policy. There should be no double standard,” an anonymous source said. “There should be a clear punishment system.”

One parent, who’s family moved to Decatur recently, expresses disappointment and anger. “We hoped, as anyone would, racism would not be such a big issue in the school we send our child to,” they said.

This parent believes honesty should be principal in addressing the larger issue of racism at play, starting with educating students of racism.

“You have to talk with kids (at least teens) about [racism] – if they sit in an assembly or go through a lesson and they don’t buy into the method, it won’t work. Maybe we could have some dynamic, compelling, impactful speakers? Or even have kids speak to their peers, they could make things real,” they said.

Another parent said that to help victims and perpetrator in the long run, restorative practices, like the district has tried to enforce recently, are necessary.

“What’s needed is for perpetrators to feel how their actions (whether careless or malicious) impacted others,” they said.

For some, the video impacted them on a more personal level.

“This video makes my family want to reconsider attending CSD,” they said. “We are a multiracial family and it definitely made us feel like we are not a valued part of the CSD community. While we recognize that these are the actions of a few individuals it is a larger indication of the way people value black and brown people in this community.” 

But several parents surveyed disagree with opinions already voiced. They dispute what most deem as the intent of the videos: malicious, and racist. They point out students in the videos may have been intoxicated, or singing along to lyrics of a song. 

“It appears to be drunk white girls trying to be cool using lyrics and slang that totally backfired. It’s not ok but it doesn’t seem that the CSD’s long history of racism and inequity should be laid on the backs of these two girls,” an anonymous source said. “Apparently, the video was posted against their knowledge. There is another story there but if someone tries to bring it up they get branded an apologist for racist behavior and the conversation is shut down.” 

One other parent contrasted the videos to one produced recently by students at Carrollton High School, about an hour away from Decatur. They describe the Carrollton video as made and distributed by sober students out of hate, a worse situation in their eyes. 

This parent believes CSD should not intervene in the matter due to these reasons, and because the videos were not created or distributed on school property or directed at another DHS student. However, the vast majority of community members disagree. 

During the meeting students recognized the prevalence of larger “ongoing” racial issues, Kupersmith said, and Dr. Jones mentioned recent events in South Georgia. An unarmed, 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two white men while on a jog through his own neighborhood.

Students and parents wait to see what will happen next. The students in the videos are minors, so the district cannot release information on what punishment they receive. However, they may release official policy changes or further restorative practices in the coming days.

Watson said that if the #OurKids slogan is true, it shouldn’t take long for DHS to take further steps.

In the meantime, Dr. Jones advises that students talk to someone they trust about these events. She personally processed the videos “by remembering that nobody’s perfect, and learning experiences are birthed from errors and the consequences of those errors.”