TRAVERSE CITY — Fallout from a racist and discriminatory social media group involving local high school students continues a week after its existence became public.
The Snapchat group “Slave Trade,” in which students from Traverse City Area Public Schools participated in a mock slave auction of their Black classmates and spewed hateful rhetoric, raised concern over the prevalence of such beliefs in local students.
Nevaeh Wharton, the 15-year-old sophomore from Traverse City Central High School who was targeted in the Snapchat, was clear early on that she wants the students involved to be educated about why what they did was wrong. That would be a long-term solution. Any suspension or expulsion might not have that affect.
Grand Traverse County sheriff’s deputies continue to investigate the incident and hope to speak with all of the students involved in or subjected to the Snapchat by the end of the weekend. Capt. Randy Fewless could not say how many students were involved, but expects to touch base with the prosecutor’s office Monday for guidance on how to proceed.
Fewless said it’s possible the investigation could result in criminal charges.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said, if the case generates charges, the matter would go through juvenile court and move forward similar to a misdemeanor. Any sentence is often rehabilitative and not punitive, Moeggenberg said.
The FBI also is aware of the situation, according to Special Agent Mara Schneider.
Jala Sue, Wharton’s mother, met with the deputy investigating the case Wednesday. Although she did not receive much detail, Sue said she was told the county prosecutor did not view the material in the chat as a threat, despite the calls for genocide and one student’s proposal to kill another student because of that student’s sexual orientation.
Moeggenberg confirmed Friday the messages are not viewed as threats.
“The kids are saying it’s a game, that they were copying a TikTok they saw — that it was just something fun they wanted to do,” Sue said.
The existence of a slave trade group on other social media platforms for the students to copycat points to the likelihood that the incident is not isolated to Traverse City. A similar Snapchat group was discovered among high school students in Aledo, Texas, two weeks before the incident at TCAPS.
Sue worries other such groups are operating in the dark, and she questions if the children involved are being targeted by white supremacist groups trying to influence impressionable teens who have already shown a leaning toward racist beliefs and behaviors.
Research from the Southern Poverty Law Center states there has been in increase in recruiting tactics aimed at young people.
“I can see them casting wide nets to try and get these kids to start these groups. If you manipulate the right person, they’ll go out and do harm,” Sue said. “Which kid is going to bite? Who can be manipulated?”
Sue reached out to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and spoke with Sunita Doddamani, the head of the office’s Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit. The Anti Defamation League as well as the Michigan Department of Civil Rights are likely to be involved as well, Sue said.
TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said he could not legally provide any update on the district’s investigation.
Wharton has not received any threats since coming forward, but Sue said her daughter’s friend — the one who alerted Wharton to the Snapchat — received a threatening message from the student who created the group. That message has been forwarded to the sheriff’s department.
Enrique Neblett, Jr. is a professor at the University of Michigan and the associate faculty lead for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Neblett said research shows individuals who go through a trauma similar to Wharton often ruminate on what happened and have negative affects on their mental health, either depression, anger or feelings of isolation. African American students experience, on average, five instances of discrimination every day, Neblett said. Those are often online.
“You’re not born having these views,” Neblett said. “We have to figure out how to not have you growing up believing these things are acceptable.”
Writing off the behavior allows for the status quo to continue, Neblett said.
“Kids are impressionable and make mistakes, but we can rise to the challenge and dig out what causes them to make those mistakes,” Neblett said.
The challenge is in the classroom, and advocates believe erasing such hate starts and ends with education.
Slavery is a thread that ran through all of Keven Cross’ curriculum when he taught U.S. history to eighth graders at Suttons Bay Middle School. Cross rarely sugarcoated the brutality and horror of the practice that placed humans in shackles and turned them into a commodity.
“You can see they are flesh and blood. You can see they are human. I felt my students needed to be confronted with what slavery really was and that slaves were not seen as human,” Cross said. “For any of them sitting there, that is hard to comprehend.”
Those participating in the Snapchat group, ignoring history and putting a price on their classmates is just another example of how racism persists, Cross said.
“We were kind of hanging our hat on these kids to not say these things, to not think these things,” he said. “But if these last four years have proved anything, people have cover now to say these things.”
The dismissive reaction of some to the incident, saying it’s just a Snapchat or they’re just kids goofing around, worries Cross.
He said the inclination of some adults to rationalize and excuse the behavior instead of confronting the serious nature is because of how uncomfortable it is — how disappointing it would be to have to admit that such thinking exists among children or that the students are serious. Passing it off is easier, Cross said.
“The uncomfortable truths either make people look deeper or shrug their shoulders and explain it away as kids being kids,” Cross said. “This tells you that we have to keep convincing and educating our students that this isn’t OK.”
A group supporting that approach met Friday to brainstorm ideas about addressing the environment that allowed the Snapchat’s creation.
Andy Phillips, curriculum director at TCAPS, and Marshall Collins, council member for the anti-racism task force Northern Michigan E3, were instrumental in creating the TCAPS Social Equity Task Force. The group’s inception began in the summer, and members have met monthly since the beginning of the school year.
Phillips said knee-jerk reactions to incidents such as the Snapchat group are part of human nature, but the task force cannot be about that. The purpose is far beyond one instance of racism.
Learning, Phillips said, is “the greatest weapon we have” to combat acts of hate and discrimination,” Phillips said.
“There isn’t a solution. No matter what we do, bad things are still going to happen,” Phillips said. “It’s about what you’re doing in the background to promote learning for as many people as you can so these incidents can become less and less.”
Discussions about slavery, the Confederate flag and Jim Crow laws cannot simply be about what they are, Collins said. Teachers must address why they existed, what created them. Leaving it up to the students to figure it out for themselves cannot be an option, Collins said.
“Those moments in history are teachable moments, and we’re just checking a box on them — we talked about this, we talked about that,” Collins said. “We need to have inquiry about why it is wrong. And say that, say this is wrong.”