TRAVERSE CITY — Justice for all.
The final three words of the Pledge of Allegiance struck a different tone Monday night at the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education meeting.
A video recording of TCAPS elementary school students reciting the pledge led the people in the COVID capacity-filled boardroom to stand and place their hand over their heart. But the subdued response from those present signaled a louder call for justice in the wake of a racist and hate-filled social media chat run by area high school students that degraded and dehumanized others.
The Snapchat account called “Slave Trade” included a mock slave auction in which photos of Black students were posted in the chat and then other students bid on how much they would pay to buy the student as a slave. It also included threats of murder against an LGBTQ person as well as calls for the genocide of all Black people and a renewal of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.
Reactions ranged from shocked and appalled, ashamed and embarrassed, devastated and disappointed, to calls for immediate action and change.
Marshall Collins is a council member of the anti-racism task force Northern Michigan E3 and is working with TCAPS on a board resolution geared toward “erasing hate from our society.” Collins believes the TCAPS board is prepared to do that.
Now, Collins said, the community has to be ready to hold the board and the district accountable to those standards.
Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr, who is also the chair of the TCAPS Curriculum Committee, agreed with Collins’ call to accelerate the process and demand change in the equity, diversity and inclusion materials and standards. Moon Mohr was outraged by the racist social media attacks and said they cannot be tolerated.
“Our youth are watching and learning from our irresponsible adult citizens,” she said. “When our local government models racist behavior— which has since been ignored and excused — this is the fallout. We must do better. We must be better.”
Trustee Flournoy Humphreys said they will reexamine board policy as well as district and school policy. Humphreys, a retired TCAPS teacher, said school staff needs the support to call out racist and hateful behavior when they see it and know they will be backed up by their principal.
Fixing the problem will also take daily practice, Humphreys said.
Humphreys called the students’ actions “vile, sickening and disgusting” and “racism and discrimination at its highest level.”
“How we handle this incident will not only define who are, but it will prove who we are,” Humphreys said.
Some hope to use the incident as a teachable moment and one of self reflection.
Heidi Haughn Palma said the existence of such thinking within children only proves that the “remnants of the white supremacy delusion” are still active within the community. Denying that stops any possible progress, Haughn Palma said.
“If we’re not ready — each of us — to address this in our homes, in our relationships, with each other, even within in ourselves ... we will be here for years to come,” she said. “This is not an isolated incident. This is an extension of ourselves.”
TCAPS Board President Scott Newman-Bale agreed.
He said such examples of racism happen frequently and need to be addressed. The classroom is a good place to start.
“We cannot provide a quality education without first providing a safe environment to learn,” Newman-Bale said. “That is the root of what we need to do.”
Collins is hopeful the students involved who perpetrated the hate will get the help and support they need to “erase that thought process.”
“They need to understand what brought them here and understand why what they did was wrong and why it was hateful,” he said. “They need to know what could happen if they continue down that road.”
The difficult conversations are necessary. Alma Vasquez knows that and made sure the board knew it when she spoke out Monday.
“If you want to fix the problem, you have to have conversations like this, but you need to have it with all people, all community members, all organizations that want to be involved,” she said. “We’re all a piece of a puzzle, and we do not have inclusion if we do not work together to finish that puzzle.”