High school halftime show racial slur was planned prank

News that members of Brookwood High School’s marching band used instrument covers to spell out a racial slur upset and saddened many members of the Gwinnett County community. But when they found out the perpetrators were minorities, it was like a one-two punch.

“This shows a need for conversations about race,” said Marlyn Tillman, a Gwinnett County parent and founder of Gwinnett SToPP, a nonprofit advocacy group, “What propelled this? What lack of self-worth must these students have to do this?”

Some sousaphone (a brass instrument similar to a tuba) players assembled themselves to spell out the word ‘coon’ using instrument covers that are normally used to spell ‘Broncos,’ the school mascot. Although, the covers are routinely used while the band is in the stands, they are to be removed before taking the field — mainly because they dampen the sound, but also because members aren’t always in sequence so the word could get garbled.

Brookwood Principal William Bo Ford Jr. sent a letter to parents, students and community members Saturday, vowing to get to the bottom of the issue.

“As promised, we started an investigation into this matter, and I wanted to share with you our current findings and the steps we are taking with the students who were involved,” Ford wrote Monday. “After extensive interviews with many students, we have determined that three seniors intentionally planned and executed the use of the sousaphone covers to spell out a completely unacceptable, racist term. The fourth student, a junior, who carried one of the letters spelling out the word, appears to have gone along with the plan at the last minute. However, all four of the students knew what was going to happen and knew what they were spelling out during the halftime show.”

The students — two black, one Asian, and one Hispanic — told administrators that they thought what they did would be funny. Ford added that the kids knew it was a racist term and was not acceptable. Two other students were involved with the Friday night incident, but lied to school officials about what happened, they will also be punished.

“I am hurt and disappointed in these students and their actions that have stunned our community. As you all know, this is not who we are. Brookwood is proud to be an inclusive and accepting school community,” wrote Ford. “This is a teachable moment for all of us, and students need to be aware that their actions and words have consequences.”

Some community members are in agreement this ought to be used as a teachable moment.

“What happened here is a microcosm of what’s going on nationally,” said Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett NAACP chapter. “These kids created a hostile environment and for (the students) to be so bold and brazen and unashamed is telling. They need to really know it won’t be tolerated.”

The Brookwood community has a forum on Facebook that was full of speculations Monday. But several parents urged that cooler heads prevail and use what happened as a point for dialogue.

“It’s important for parents to talk to their kids so they understand the implicit meaning of words,” said Charity Kohl, a Brookwood parent. “We are a family and there shouldn’t be anything that we can’t talk through. Whether it was done on accident or on purpose, we’re better than that.”

Ford wrote in the letter: “It is also important for us to unite in support of our program and student and staff leaders of our award-winning band. I have faith in our students and community that we will rise together and become stronger in this challenging time. I hope that our program, school, and community will not be judged based on the unfortunate decisions and actions of a few developing teenagers. As always, thank you for your support of our students and school.”

While comforting members of its own community, Brookwood did not reach out to Lakeside High.

A spokesman for DeKalb County Schools said they’d received no word as of late afternoon.

“DCSD is disappointed that students and community members from both schools were exposed to insensitive, divisive language. Racial slurs only serve to divide our communities,” a statement from DeKalb said. “We are confident Brookwood High School and the Gwinnett County Public Schools are taking the proper steps to remedy this unfortunate situation.”

The investigation isn’t completely wrapped up, and school officials haven’t determined what the punishment will be, said Bernard Watson, a Gwinnett County schools spokesman. He wanted to squash rumors the band director and other members of the band might be suspended from performing.

“The band will be on the field on Friday,” he said.