TRAVERSE CITY — Racist exchanges between a group of teenagers on a social media platform are at the center of attention of parents, educators, advocates and law enforcement.
Students from two area school districts are the focus of both school and law enforcement investigations launched Friday after officials learned of a discussion titled “Slave Trade” on the social media platform Snapchat. The students are accused of participating in a group exchange where photos of Black students were posted by some and others placed bids for them.
Pictures of messages viewed by the Record-Eagle included crude and sexual comments, racial and anti-LGBTQ slurs, demeaning comments about students with autism and racist stereotypes.
Nevaeh Wharton — a 15-year-old biracial student at Traverse City Central High School — said she was both angry and disgusted as she became aware that some of her peers, her classmates and even her friends took part in the social media exchange that targeted her and several others.
Wharton said a student from Traverse City West Senior High School created the private Snapchat account.
“I didn’t know what to think, but I wasn’t crazy surprised considering the kids who were in it,” Wharton said.
Wharton was hesitant to speak out, but felt she must.
“I’d like to just get through everything and then forget about it,” she said. “It’s not really something you can forget about, but it’s not something I want to keep talking about. But I don’t want it to happen again — to anyone.”
Wharton said the student from West previously created a private Snapchat story he called “Hitler’s Summer Camp.”
“That was messed up, but no one seemed very bothered by it,” Wharton said.
Both Wharton and her mother, Jala Sue, spoke with a Grand Traverse County sheriff’s deputy Friday about the incident.
Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Capt. Randy Fewless confirmed the department is investigating the matter and will be interviewing those involved with and affected. Fewless said deputies are working with Traverse City Area Public Schools officials to identify the students.
Wharton believes another in the group, a student who called for genocide against Black and Jewish people, is a student at Benzie Central High School. Benzie Superintendent Amiee Erfourth did not return a call for comment as of 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Wharton said one of the students included in the chat was, but no longer is, a close friend.
“He never bid on anyone — which is gross to say — but he was sincere when he apologized, at least more sincere than the other one,” Wharton said. “He was a really good friend.”
Wharton said the teen tried to describe his actions as a joke.
Wharton told him, “Jokes are meant to be funny. This isn’t funny.”
“I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me,” Wharton said.
Watching her daughter read the messages for the first time was heartbreaking for Sue.
“To see my daughter’s face with a bid underneath it ... to see them going back and forth talking about her like she’s this object for sale and should be dead because of how she looks, it was just complete rage,” Sue said.
The messages are only a symptom of a “much larger” and deep-seated issue, Sue said.
“The world is so broken, right now,” she said. “You want to put up a fight and do what’s right. Let’s open this and expose it.”
Some who read the messages could not stop from having a visceral reaction.
Irene Miller is an author and a speaker. She is also a Holocaust survivor.
Miller said she had to read the messages several times because she could not believe she was reading it correctly. Such hate among high school students should not exist and outrage should be spreading through the community, Miller said.
“They should know about the horror among them,” she said.
Miller refuses to excuse the behavior because of the students’ age. She said they are not kids, they are not joking. Some will be able to vote in a year or two, and that worries Miller.
“They are not totally ignorant. They know,” she said. “The source of that illogical hate is just incredible.”
Miller wants to come to Traverse City and speak at one of the high schools. A message needs to be delivered, she said.
“I am so overwhelmed to know that a thing like that could exist among high school students — the notion of the right of one human being to kill another just because you don’t like the color of their skin,” she said.
The incident is similar one in Aledo, Texas, that was revealed less than two weeks ago. High school students there also held a mock slave auction on Snapchat.
Wharton’s mother is calling for TCAPS officials to expel all students involved.
Superintendent John VanWagoner and Board of Education President Scott Newman-Bale said the issue likely will be discussed at the Monday board meeting.
“It’s not going to be an easy conversation, but it’s one we’re going to have to have,” Newman-Bale said. “It will be tough to get through this.”
Officials from Northwest Education Services also are expected to be at the meeting. North Ed Superintendent Nick Ceglarek said they are working to address discrimination throughout the five counties North Ed serves.
“Dehumanization, discrimination and other acts of cruelty are unacceptable behaviors that have no place in our schools or anywhere else in society, and those transgressions should never be tolerated or overlooked,” Ceglarek said. “Ignorance is not an excuse.”
Diane Emling is a retired professor and author of “Institutional Racism and Restorative Justice: Oppression and Privilege in America.” Snapchat groups like those in Traverse City and Texas show a sense of entitlement and a willful ignorance toward what students know is right and what they know is wrong, she said.
In a community like Traverse City that is largely white, Emling said the students involved feel as if they own the school and can get away with anything.
The mindset that such rhetoric and behavior is not only allowable but admirable in some cases has come from “the highest level” in the last several years, Emling said. Behavior is modeled, and recent actions have reinforced and excused that behavior.
“One person gets it started, and then someone else goes, ‘Well, if this is an acceptable thing, I can chime in, too,’” Emling said.
The best solution to the problem, Emling said, is not punishment. A suspension or expulsion is easier for those students. The difficult approach — the one that could make a difference, Emling said — would be for them to sit down across from the person they hurt and truly own up to the hurt they inflicted.
Wharton isn’t sure she wants to talk, but she agrees with Emling that punishment is probably not the lone route to go.
“I want them to learn,” Wharton said. “I want them to really know, to really understand what they did. And they didn’t just do it to me.”