Social Media Director
December 9, 2016
After a leaked photo of an Atholton student using a racial slur hit the internet three weeks ago, Twitter reached chaotic levels and was in an ultimate frenzy as people went back and forth discussing the shocking turn of events. Both on Twitter and throughout Howard County, community members on both sides used passionate and even vulgar language to express their thoughts and feelings, causing a major disruption across the county.
Students, parents, and teachers in Howard County and even across state lines were outraged and hurt by the leaked picture. The president of Atholton’s Black Student Union, Sariah Thompson-James, spoke about the picture.
“I was disgusted at the action and the fact that it was from someone who goes to my school. I’d seen incidences of it happening around the country, but I never thought someone I associate with from my own school that I thought was more open minded would do something so blatantly racist and rude.”
Everyone has the right to be upset and show their disappointment in what happened. With this said, most of the reactions to this issue have been overwhelmingly negative. This makes sense, but it is important to learn the story behind it and not jump to conclusions. We as a community must use this opportunity to have positive dialogue and to keep the conversation going. That is the only way we can heal.
Pastor David Anderson Provides Conversation
Recently, a video was posted on social media of a conversation between the AHS student and an African-American pastor, Dr. David Anderson. The purpose of the video was to clarify the situation, diffuse existing racial tensions, and offer an opportunity to ask for public forgiveness. The Atholton student was asked in particular why she decided to send a photograph of herself covered in a brown face mask captioned with a racial slur.
“Originally, I was wearing a chocolate face mask, and I was snapchatting friends. They said, ‘Oh you look like this,’ and so I was talking with them,” said the student. “I did not realize what blackface is, and I did not realize the hurtfulness behind it all. So they took it and screenshotted it. That was back in October. Recently, a few days after the election, and after all the tension, the picture resurfaced and someone posted it. People shared and reposted it. I got hundreds of threats and personal information given out. We had to leave the state for personal reasons. These news articles got all the wrong story saying I posted it.”
In actuality, the student said she did not post the picture to Twitter; it was screenshotted by an Atholton student on Snapchat and then put on Twitter by another AHS student. The student could not believe how many people she hurt and subsequently she felt awful.
“I never knew what that meant, never heard about it, never learned about it and never saw how hurtful it was to certain people.”
She learned “how the consequences of that can go to extreme and go out of hand.”
Due to the online onslaught the post generated, she was traumatized.
“The first few days it was just numb and it didn’t feel real to me and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I had to go to the hospital to get fluids because I just couldn’t function,” she said through tears.
The conversation with Pastor Dr. David Anderson has helped the situation a lot. According to a tweet from the pastor, the interview was successful in sharing its message, as it has been seen over 85,000 times and shared hundreds of times.
Let’s compare this approach to what we saw on Twitter three weeks ago. On Twitter, people clearly overreacted , wanted attention, and spewed anger and hatred. The beloved black civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. once said “do not fight hate with hate,” which is the approach we should take in situations like this. It is wonderful when we are able to come together and forgive each other and realize that, while people make mistakes, it does not define us if we realize we made a mistake and ask for forgiveness. The pastor said that extending grace is necessary and we need to forgive and love each other instead of wishing harm against them.
How Has Atholton Responded?
The incident on social media left a lot of people hurt and angry. Many groups within Atholton have taken action and spoken within their groups and the school as a way to recognize the issue and move past it in a positive manner. Groups such as Atholton’s JROTC program and the Student Voice program had meetings in the past week discussing where Atholton will go from here. Currently, the Student Voice group is set up to meet with every single student in the school.
As a leader and facilitator of the Student Voices group, a group that was started three years ago, Ms. Street discussed what the group wanted to accomplish in their meetings.
“In our meeting, we used the original ten [from Student Voices] and we added a few more to create a second wave. What it is is an opportunity for us to say how can we continue to make Atholton inclusive for everyone, how can we continue to make Atholton culture a place where everyone feels like they have a voice. We really met to pinpoint what our next actions are and how we can ripple this out to other students to help give other students voices.”
JROTC had a similar conversation in their respective group. Sgt. Johnson noted that the group was in a unfortunate situation considering the girl in the picture was a member of the JROTC program.
“The kids feel like there has been a cloud because of the situation, but at the same time, there are different groups who feel sorry for the individual that did what they did and there are groups that think she was wrong but did not deserve the threats that she received. I do not feel like any group was angry or resented, they were more hurt than anything.”
Much like Sgt. Johnson, Street also noted the vast differences in the opinions of students, but applauded the students in the Student Voice group on how professional and respectful they were of the many opinions.
“I got the chance to facilitate and watch and listen. There were many viewpoints from indifference, to hurt, to shock to ‘Okay, it happened, now where do we go now?’ It was really amazing to see how 24 students came together, listened to one another, and shared their different viewpoints and perspectives without jumping down each others throats.” said Street. “In terms of emotions it was A-Z and it really depended on who your friends were and who you hung out with. It hit some people harder than others but overall, I walked away saying ‘We all have a lot to say about it but at the same time we all know that Atholton is a great place.’ While everyone had their different feelings, we’re not a bad place. This is a great school. The energy that came out of the student group really just brought us back to ‘We are fantastic, we just need to take the next step to make it more fantastic.’”
Both Street and Johnson seem to agree that the healing process will make Atholton an even better place to attend school.
Street also recognizes that Atholton’s diverse community is what makes it great and able to have a smooth and impactful healing period that some schools may not be able to get.
“We are a diverse school, but we respect and understand diversity which means we know how to put on different lenses. We know how to be accepting and tolerant in ways that maybe many other schools don’t. The interactions we have with each other on a daily basis are honest. They are not forced and when you don’t force relationships you can have a healing process. Sure there are ups and downs, but we still have the same end goal in mind.”
Atholton junior Adam Elshafei agreed with the goal of both Student Voices and JROTC and noted how important the group has been not only to him and how it can help others who feel as though they do not get the opportunity to share their opinion.
“Talking to a counselor or staff member can help us heal because it allows students to vent their feelings and release negative emotions that they may have been holding onto. I think it is important to note that Atholton is a great school and I am so glad to be a part of this school as well as the Student Voice group. I am thrilled to say that I see Atholton taking great steps and I am extremely optimistic for our school,” said junior Adam Elshafei.
Street believes the Student Voice group has been great for the conversation and says she feels very positive after leaving a conversation, noting just how successful her group was.
“I am super energized after every time I meet with the group and I think it was extremely successful because we have students from every background.”
How Can Atholton Move Forward?
As Atholton takes steps to create an inclusive environment, one thing that can not be overlooked in this scenario is the social media factor. Teenagers must realize that while everyone makes mistakes, a mistake on the Internet unfortunately never goes away. As a generation, young people must have an open mind and be smart with what they post or say over the various social media apps. It is confirmed by the student who took the photo that it was sent it to an anonymous person on Snapchat and that it was only showed to that one person. However, a month or so later, the picture had resurfaced on Twitter, but the picture was not posted by her directly. While this is unfortunate, teenagers must learn that nothing is private on the Internet. The Internet is very useful in many cases of communication, but it never goes away, so hopefully this situation will serve as a reminder the next time people use profanity and offensive language as a joke on social media,
On Twitter, the girl has received death threats from people around the county. While people may be hurt by what she said, using strong profanity and death threats is a clear overreaction. As Larry Cohen once said, and as Atholton’s Black Student Union Facilitator, Lisa Petty, pointed out, “think before you act, and think before you react.” To Petty, the first step in the healing process is forgiveness.
“Yes, it was hurtful, I actually teared up when I first saw [the picture] and I guess it would’ve been really easy for me to get angry. We shouldn’t react in such a negative way where we want to hurt that person, that doesn’t bring about any positive solution. Trying to hurt her, threatening to beat her up, that is just not the way.”
Petty also said that dialogue is the only way to make this divided country united again.
“It needs to be about understanding and respecting. I never like the word ‘tolerate’ because it’s like you’re just putting up with something.” said Petty. “We’re one people, we should be one people, we should be together and not divided. It should be about trying to hit those things that separate us. I don’t know what it is that separates us,– that is why we have to talk. We need to come to an understanding, and if what somebody is saying is wrong, then we must educate them with love.”
What Can We Learn?
Given the recent walk out at Oakland Mills, transparency and communication are the most important thing we can do when racial tensions begin to brew. Everyone at Atholton has come together, voiced their opinions, and worked to make this school even better than before. There can always be improvements, no matter how fantastic and diverse Atholton is. People must be able to get out any emotions that they may have. The Student Voice group has allowed that and has made this school a model for many other schools who may not know what the right way is. At Atholton, we have learned that mistakes happen but we must offer forgiveness and love instead of hate and anger. That is the only way to make our school even better.
“No matter how perfect we think something is, it can always be better. You can only learn from events and change and you have to take it forward. I think we can definitely become a better school than we already are. I think we can be an amazing community and great role model for other schools,” Street said.
Street is correct. Diversity is something that Atholton takes pride in. In a situation like this, diversity can only benefit the school because we have so many different people with so many different opinions. That is what has made Atholton great for 50 years. Three weeks ago, people made mistakes, but through love, understanding, and of course “thinking before we react,” we can ensure that the next fifty years will be even brighter in Raider Nation.