Two black students at a Missouri middle school were sent a racist meme by a white classmate, the school district said, and the parents of one of the students want changes to the district’s policies dealing with acts of racism.
“Upon learning of what has reportedly happened, the school’s administrators responded immediately,” Webster Groves School District Superintendent John Simpson said in a statement. “You can be assure that this kind of behavior has no place in our schools and will not be tolerated.”
The two eighth graders at Hixson Middle School were at lunch February 27 when they were sent a meme with a photograph of a white man spraying a young black child with a hose, the district said. Superimposed on the image was the phrase: “Go be a n***er somewhere else,” according to Shaun Swearengen, the father of one of the students, who posted it on Facebook.
The school confirmed to CNN that the meme that was posted was the one sent to the students.
The school investigated the incident and identified the student who sent the photo, Webster Groves School District spokeswoman Cathy Vespereny told CNN.
While one of the students declined to receive the file, Swearengen’s daughter accepted it and her phone instantly pulled up the photo, which left her feeling hurt and confused, Swearengen told CNN. The file was sent via AirDrop, which allows iPhone users to share files wirelessly between phones, he said.
The 14-year-old immediately called her mother, who said she was “in tears” when she saw the image.
“I’ve been crying on and off all day, all night … every time I see the picture I just immediately start crying because I just can’t believe someone would think that was OK to send to my child,” Yolanda Morris, the student’s mother, told CNN affiliate KMOV.
Although his daughter has always been to predominantly white schools where she was one of the only black students, Swearengen said this was the first time she was exposed to what he called “blatant racism.” The incident has left her “extremely hurt” and he said she’ll need counseling because of the situation.
“The staff at Hixson will provide support and care for those affected today and in the days and weeks to come, and create a space for children and staff to share any feelings that emerge from what they experienced, saw, or heard,” Simpson said in his statement.
A demand for change
The school district said it could not confirm to CNN whether the student who sent the meme received any disciplinary action, due to student confidentiality.
The incident is considered “demeaning language in the form of racial discrimination,” Vespereny said.
The district currently has no uniform punishment for acts of racism, bullying, demeaning language or harassment, according to its current guidelines.
Consequences can range from detention to suspension, but the district’s guidelines leave punishment for bullying up to the individual schools and do not mention racially motivated incidents.
While Swearengen applauded the administration at Hixson Middle School for immediately taking control of the situation, he said he and Morris want the district to implement a uniform penalty for such incidents.
He said he also wants the district to change its curriculum to better educate young students on the inequalities black people faced and continue to face today.
“I wish I can talk to the kid and show them photos in the ‘40s and ‘50s when white people actually used water hoses to spray black people with. I don’t think he really understood what it meant,” Swearengen said.
“I don’t believe the current curriculum does enough to really address true inclusion & diversity among students & staff,” he said in an email to CNN. “I will continue to fight to see Webster Groves School District make sure all ethnic groups are represented in school curriculum & textbooks.”
Missouri was a slave state, with enslaved people making up about one-fifth of the state’s population by 1820. Today, African-Americans make up less than 12% of Missouri’s population.
When asked what was currently in the curriculum, the spokeswoman did not go into detail but did note the school district is planning on rewriting and implementing a “more inclusive” curriculum to include the state’s legacy of racism and discrimination.
“What I can say is at the moment we’re creating spaces for children and staff to process this, talk about it, and come together,” Vespereny told CNN. “We’re also rewriting our social studies curriculum to focus on inequalities throughout history so we can look at it from multiple perspectives.”
The district will train white staff to “apply an anti-racist/anti-bias lens” while working with students and will educate administrators on how to “dismantle inequitable systems” within the school district, according to Vespereny.
The district is also developing “authentic ways” to diversify school libraries to include books by people of color and for students of color, she said.