Gwinnett school apologizes for racially insensitive yearbook photo

The Gwinnett County Public Schools district offices. AJC file photo

The Gwinnett County Public Schools district offices. AJC file photo

A photo featuring multiple students making a racially insensitive gesture was published in the 2019-2020 Dyer Elementary School yearbook, which was delivered to families last week.

Principal Michael DiFilippo sent a letter of apology Thursday to the Dacula school’s students and families for the photo’s publication. The photo showed a group of students, some of whom were pulling their eyes back in a way often used to mock people of Asian descent. The students had been told to “make a silly face” for the photo, DiFilippo said.

“We see this as a teachable moment for our students, helping them to understand that their actions can hurt others even if they did not intend to offend,” DiFilippo said in the letter. “We apologize for the actions of these students and that this photo appeared in the yearbook. As a diverse school community, our goal is to cultivate respect for all cultures and to provide a welcoming environment for all.”

Dyer Elementary is in the Gwinnett County School District. Gwinnett is the most racially diverse county in Georgia, and 12.5% of its population is Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gwinnett County Public Schools’ student body is 12% Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Yearbooks are typically given out at the end of the school year, but distribution of the 2019-2020 edition was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing students to finish the year remotely. The school will review its yearbook production procedures to make sure inappropriate photos are not published in the future, DiFilippo said.

The gesture in the photo is hurtful and “dehumanizing” for people of Asian descent, said Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta. The photo concerns her not only as an advocate for the Asian American community, but as the parent of an Asian American student in the district.

“As Asian Americans, we are viewed as a perpetual foreigner, and our eyes are what people distinguish as identifying us as Asian or foreign,” Cho said. “[The gesture] is incredibly offensive. It reduces a person to a gesture instead of a full human being.”

The incident shows Gwinnett County Public Schools needs to take an “intentionally inclusive” approach in education, said Everton Blair, a member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education

“There is no better time than now to educate our children on the beauty of our pluralistic diversity and to guard against actions and beliefs that ostracize or racially exclude others,” Blair said.

This is second known yearbook flap in the Gwinnett district this summer. In June, Collins Hill High School apologized after discovering its 2020 yearbook contained a racial slur next to an image Martin Luther King Jr.