OPINION: Carrollton, Decatur and Marist confront student use of ‘n-word’

Word that should be long buried keeps getting dragged out by teens on social media
Two Carrollton High seniors were expelled for a racist  video that has been viewed more than 9 million times.

Credit: Twitter

Credit: Twitter

Two Carrollton High seniors were expelled for a racist  video that has been viewed more than 9 million times.

In the last two weeks, videos by public high school students using the n-word have roiled the liberal bastion of Decatur and the conservative stronghold of Carrollton.

Somehow, in 2020, teens are still using a word fraught with history and hate and recording themselves doing so.

An offensive video of two Carrollton High seniors pretending to mix ingredients in a bathroom sink to "make" a black person was viewed more than 9 million times and generated thousands of disapproving comments and, according to one of the teens, even death threats.

Posted to TikTok, a social media platform favored by teens, the video elicited a strong reaction from Carrollton City Schools. Superintendent Mark Albertus said the students' behavior was unacceptable and "not representative of the district's respect for all people...The racist behavior observed in the video easily violates this standard. They are no longer students at Carrollton High School."

A Decatur video has not gone viral, although it was viewed at least 2,400 times in a single Twitter posting since Sunday and has been seen by many students and parents from Decatur High School who then informed the school.

The brief clip of a Decatur High student is blurry, shaky and slightly unintelligible, but the teen clearly says the racial epithet at least twice. A second video making the rounds in Decatur shows another teenage girl emphasizing the racial slur as she lip-syncs a popular profanity-laced song.

In a statement to Decatur parents, the high school administration said:

This weekend, many of you saw videos circulating on social media featuring DHS students using racist and vulgar language. We were made aware of these videos on Sunday by a number of students and community members. We would like to thank these individuals, especially these students, for sharing these videos with us and for sharing how they were hurt, angry, and upset by them. The language used in these videos and in the captions that have been shared are unacceptable in any circumstance and context.

According to the CSD Code of Conduct and Restorative Practices Handbook, material posted in electronic formats and shared on social media is subject to school discipline if materials were created and/or shared on campus and/or constitute cyberbullying. Due to the nature of these videos, DHS administration is continuing an investigation into their creation and distribution. As with all student disciplinary investigations, we are bound by student privacy policies when sharing outcomes. We will assign consequences where we find that rules have been broken.

An important part of our response as a school to any racist or hateful actions that occur in our community is to offer students space to express their anger and hurt and to work to repair harm done. We know that many students have been harmed by these videos...While we were shocked and saddened by these videos, we know that such language is used all too often in Decatur, as it is across the state and country.

Decatur Superintendent David Dude said he and high school staff met virtually with more than 150 students Tuesday about the incident. In a letter to the community about that meeting, Dude wrote:

Our students expressed understandable disappointment, frustration, and outrage. They also suggested ways DHS can become a more culturally inclusive learning community.

It is at times and in situations like the present, when equity work gets painful and difficult, that it becomes most important for us to reflect upon the things we have deemed necessary for all our students to feel safe, seen, and successful. Some of these things are easy and enjoyable, others are difficult and challenging, and it is at such a time that our adherence to our stated values and expectations is the most important.

Thus, it is within the CSD framework of restoration, education, equity, and consequences that the behavior exhibited in these videos will be addressed. While we cannot and will not share specific actions used to address specific students due to student privacy rights, I would like to assure our community that I take this situation very seriously and will ensure it is addressed accordingly.

It is not just public schools confronting this problem. Parents are suing the Marist School after their teenage daughter was expelled because of her alleged use of the n-word during an online class earlier this month.

Filed in U.S. District Court, the Marist lawsuit alleges the private Catholic school punished a teen — whose mother is Hispanic — more severely for the alleged use of racial epithet than "similarly situated Caucasian students and parents with respect to the school’s disciplinary procedures, the imposition of a disciplinary penalty, and the school’s obligation to provide educational services for the entire school year. "

During an online class in April, the school alleged the student said the n-word, but the lawsuit blames the utterance on an Instagram video the teen was watching while she thought her computer was muted.

In a statement to the AJC, the Rev. William Rowland, the president of Marist, said:

While Marist School cannot respond specifically to matters in active litigation, we can affirm that we have proceeded thoughtfully and carefully with regard to this situation, which involved disciplinary action we took in response to a student incident involving the use of racially charged language.

The decisions we have made reflect the strong commitment Marist School has to the values of inclusiveness, equity, and safety in our school community.

The 39-page lawsuit requests Marist reinstate the student, expunge her record and pay compensatory damages of a million dollars.

In support of the student's claim of unequal treatment, the lawsuit lists other alleged racist incidents at Marist that resulted in less severe punishment, including one in November that led to the removal of a theology teacher. The lawsuit describes that high-profile incident this way: "In or about November 2019, three Caucasian female students at Marist School posted to social media a Snapchat video of themselves dancing to rap music with artificially darkened faces, and Marist School imposed a penalty of demerits and forfeiture of participation in a retreat."

These behaviors across schools raise the questions of how seriously to take teenagers acting stupid and whether their actions speak to hate writ large or just small-minded kids acting the fool.

Among the arguments for why teens in these videos and situations deserve grace: They had no ill intent or their actions were judged out of context. They never intended to post the video; an ex-friend posted it; it was recorded a year ago; they were just joking around. And the standard line: Rappers say this stuff all the time and no one complains. (These arguments have become rote as this meme illustrates.)


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But the Marist teacher who lost her job over her prayer addressing racism at Marist, in which she cited the Snapchat video, disagrees that teenage immaturity excuses these acts. Such rationales are "a master class in white privilege," said Mary Catherine Harmon-Christian.

"Afterwards, it's always said that they are good kids and they just made a mistake. But they continue to make those same mistakes,” she said. “They are not held accountable. Black students are immediately held accountable if anything happens. The concern is about how the white students feel; it's always the white people who get to be centered. We are still putting all the attention on them and not on the black students who were hurt or feel unsafe."