A news conference held to denounce an Instagram post by an East Chapel Hill High School student turned into a raucous debate Wednesday when the father of one of the girls in the photo showed up to defend his daughter.
Earlier this week, parents learned that during a school-sponsored trip to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, a student posted a photograph on Instagram of two female students waving what looked like Confederate flags.
A line under the photo read “South will rise.” A comment posted lower down read: “Already bought my first slave.”
A group of about two dozen people, including members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, gathered outside Lincoln Center, the headquarters of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, on Wednesday. They demanded consequences for the students involved and said it was another example of white students not being punished for offenses that would result in discipline for black students.
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“Students were hurt, and even students I know have cried because of this incident and remarks they were horrified by,” said Brianna Tate, a senior at East Chapel Hill High.
Wanda Hunter, an anti-racism trainer, said the incident is a learning opportunity for the girls and “all of us.”
“As white people we need to claim these girls as our progeny and work on creating an environment where never in a million years would they think what they did was cute or amusing,” she said.
Superintendent Tom Forcella said the district does not have a policy that addresses social media posts outside school, except for cyber bullying.
“I agree it is offensive,” he told reporters after the news conference.
But the Instagram post did not rise to the level of bullying because it was a single incident and not a repeated action, he said.
The students were not suspended, he said. He would not name them or discuss any actions taken against them, citing student privacy rules.
“The students in our elementary schools and middle schools are just being bombarded with the social media sites,” Forcella continued.
“We agree there is still much to do,” he added in a separate statement. “The implications, and sometimes unintended consequences that arise on social networking sites need a more deliberate approach.”
Jolanda Johnson, a parent who spoke at the news conference, said the Instagram post got 60 likes in 20 minutes. She asked what would have happened had the post and comment involved a swastika and Jewish students.
Michelle Laws, executive director of the state NAACP, called the district’s response a double standard, noting disproportionate suspension rates of black students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and elsewhere.
“There are some folks that ought to know better and who ought to be able to understand that racism in any form needs to be addressed head on, especially by those that we consider to be responsible, educated, intelligent and informed adults like our superintendent and those who are administrators of our school district,” she said.
But the news conference took an unexpected turn when Ronald Creatore, who identified himself as the father of one of the girls in the picture, spoke up from the crowd.
“My daughter was not raised in an environment of hate,” he said.
He said the photo occurred on the field trip when the students were told to recreate Pickett’s charge. His daughter was one of the last two students standing and they were carrying a North Carolina regiment flag, modeled on the Confederate flag, he said.
His daughter wrote “South will rise,” but it was in the spirit of the re-enactment and she was not responsible for the comment posted about buying a slave, Creatore said. One of the girls immediately wrote “No, no,” with an arrow pointing up to indicate that was not the intent of the photo, he said, and the photo was quickly taken down.
Creatore said he did not punish his daughter and said when he was her age he might not have understood how some would see the photo either.
“My daughter is very upset,” he said. “This was never intended in the way it’s being perceived in the community. ... The girls have apologized, and no one has accepted their apology.”
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and others are calling on parents and community members to attend the next Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Chapel Hill Town Hall at 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Statement from Superintendent Tom Forcella
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spends significant time training staff and working with students in matters of equity. I consider us to be a progressive school district, so it stands to reason, when it comes to equity training for both students and staff. We are very concerned any time there are accusations of racist behaviors, and we take these conversations very seriously.
In the past three weeks, we have heard from many in our community who are concerned about a picture and comments posted on a social media site. We have been questioned about any consequences for the students involved.
First, it is unlawful for us to publicly discuss these matters. It is never permissible for us to share confidential information about our students. Second, while some would say we are hiding behind the first amendment, I would say we are standing on the first amendment. Students are guaranteed the same rights as all citizens.
Having said that, we agree that there is still much work to do. The implications, and sometimes unintended consequences, that arise on social networking sites need a more deliberate approach. Implicit bias does exist in all of us, regardless of our race. We need to address it directly whether it is in classrooms or in teachable moments on athletic fields, at extra-curricular events or in our school hallways.
As a school district, we are always looking to improve, and that includes our equity work with students, staff and our entire community. We need to recognize and celebrate the differences that bring a very healthy diversity to our schools.