Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Board Addresses Racist Snapchat Incident; Police Investigation Underway

By Beth Milligan | April 27, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members received nearly an hour of public comment Monday from upset community members calling for disciplinary action and curriculum changes following a racist incident involving students on Snapchat. TCAPS board member and curriculum committee chair Erica Moon Mohr said she plans to push for an “accelerated” approach to including more diverse and antiracist materials in district classes, while Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner said TCAPS will provide “immediate” guest speakers and lessons to students on diversity and inclusivity. Board members said they were “devastated” and “embarrassed” about the incident, which has prompted a legal investigation into students’ actions.

Several students from TCAPS and other local school districts exchanged messages on a “Slave Trade” Snapchat group, in which they posted racist, homophobic, antisemitic, anti-disability, and other hateful comments about fellow students. The group assigned bid values to students of color, and posted remarks including “Let’s have another Holocaust” and “All Blacks should die.” Other students alerted district officials to the group’s existence, prompting both an internal TCAPS investigation and a Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office investigation. According to Sheriff’s Office Captain Randy Fewless, an investigating deputy will be interviewing individuals this week about the case.

“We are currently investigating it as the unlawful posting of a message,” Fewless tells The Ticker. “It’s really too early to say what might be found in the investigation, as several people still need to be spoken with…the prosecutor’s office has been consulted with, and they provided us with that crime that may possibly apply.”

Under Michigan law, unlawful posting of a message applies to online messages that lead to unconsented contact with individuals or to conduct that would make individuals “suffer emotional distress and to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.” The crime is a felony and punishable by up to two years in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000. Under some circumstances – such as when the message results in credible threats being made to the victim or victim’s household – the penalties can be more severe.

After news of the incident became public last week, local antiracism task force group Northern Michigan E3 issued an open letter to TCAPS calling for officials to acknowledge that what occurred was a racist act – early district language called it a “very serious and inappropriate incident” – and to require the students involved and their parents/guardians to receive antiracism counseling. The letter also calls on TCAPS to provide trauma-informed support for the students and families impacted by the Snapchat group, and to engage community partners like Northern Michigan E3 with the district’s Social Equity Task Force to review curriculum and policies. Over 500 people had signed the open letter as of Monday.

Jala Sue Wharton and her daughter Nevaeh – a 15-year-old student at Traverse City Central High School who was mentioned in the Snapchat group – addressed TCAPS board members Monday. Jala Sue said TCAPS needed to do “a way better job of educating” students on diversity issues, and described the pain she felt watching her daughter be targeted in the social media group. “No parent wants to see their child hurt…this is next level,” she said. Referencing the posts about Black people dying, Jala Sue said: “That’s not a joke. I feel like this should be taken extremely seriously and addressed in a way she will be safe…this is a human life, and no kid should have to go through this.” Nevaeh told board members she wanted the community “to be a better and safer place” for all members, adding: “I feel like the first step to doing that is better education. These types of topics aren’t talked about in school a lot, and I feel like the first step to making this community better is talking about it more and educating people on it more.”

Other members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community shared their own experiences with TCAPS board members Monday, including experiencing discrimination and hateful incidents as former students or having children experiencing those issues now. Dana Greensky said her family recently had to take legal action against a student in Leelanau County who was harassing her daughter, while Courtney Wiggins said her son – a student at Central Grade School – has faced discrimination and bullying. “This is part of every day life for people of color, and it’s really difficult for us,” she said. While the topic may be “uncomfortable” for TCAPS officials to address, Wiggins said, she asked the district to “think about how uncomfortable it feels for us.”

Following public comment Monday, VanWagoner read a prepared statement in which he called the Snapchat incident “racist, antisemitic, and discriminatory,” condemned the behavior of the students involved, and praised the students who came forward to report the group. VanWagoner said the district’s Social Equity Task Force would be crafting an anti-discriminatory resolution for the TCAPS board to adopt at an upcoming meeting. Other committee steps will include expanding staff training and professional development related to diversity and social justice issues, immediately incorporating additional guest speakers and lessons on inclusivity into classes, and continuing the committee’s curriculum review to identify “gaps that need to be addressed” in educational materials. Curriculum committee chair and TCAPS board member Erica Moon Mohr said she was “outraged” by the case and was “committed to demanding change” in TCAPS curriculum to better address diversity and inclusivity issues.

TCAPS Board Chair Scott Newman-Bale noted that district officials are legally restricted from discussing many aspects of the case right now due to school privacy laws and an open police investigation, including the names of students involved and any disciplinary actions being taken against them. TCAPS cannot confirm, for example, whether the involved students have been removed from school, Newman-Bale said. He and other board members expressed shock and disappointment over the incident, which Flournoy Humphreys called “vile, sickening, and disgusting.” Humphreys said TCAPS needed to pursue antiracism actions in its curriculum, policies, and “daily practice on our campuses” to ensure students feel safe and staff feel empowered to call out inappropriate behavior.

“Our reaction – meaning our school board, how we handle this incident – will not only define who we are,” Humphreys said, “but will prove who we are as a TCAPS society and as Traverse City as a community.”

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