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TCAPS condemns racist social media groupchat, residents urge for regional wake-up call

Traverse City Area Public Schools

Concerned residents and parents spoke out against racism and harassment Up North during a Traverse City school board meeting Monday night.

The agenda was dominated byallegations of racist behavior among high school students in Traverse City Area Public Schools. On April 23 the district announced that some were sharing slavery-themed pictures of students of color with price tags on the social media app Snapchat. This follows a trend that’s popped up in other schools across the country.

The messages sent by Traverse City students also included threats against black students and urged for another holocaust against people of color. Another student eventually reported the chat to school officials.

“I want this community to be a better and safer place for anyone and everyone,” said 15-year-old student Nevaeh Wharton, who was targeted by some of the messages. “I feel like the first step to making this community better is talking about [racism] more.”

Northern Michigan E3, a local activist group, asked residents to write-in to the school board and as of Tuesday, got over 500 signatures on a letter calling for action.

Most speakers at the meeting also asked the district to severely punish the guilty parties to the full extent of the law and board policy, something the district superintendent has echoed. In a statement to parents, the district previously called the Snapchat incident “inappropriate,” but several speakers said that didn’t go far enough.

“We are calling for you to call this what it is, this isn’t just a disheartening endeavor” Brett Sinclair said. “This is addressing hate-speech and hate crimes.”

After public comment, TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner harshly condemned the messages.

“A racist and anti-semitic and discrimatory ‘slave trade’ Snapchat was circulated,” he said, adding that the district is taking steps to promote racial equity.

The meeting also served as a forum on racism in the region, with several parents taking the mic to recount stories of harassment they -- or their children in TCAPS -- experienced.

“I have three other kids, I’ve seen them bullied through the TCAPS system, I’ve dealt with [this] before,” said Jala Sue, Nevaeh Wharton’s mother.

“We as northern Michigan residents need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves why our youth are doing these kinds of actions.” said Marshall Collins Jr., of Northwest Education Services.

The district’s investigation into the Snapchat messages, which includes the Grand Traverse County sheriff’s office, is ongoing.

Max came to IPR in 2017 as an environmental intern. In 2018, he returned to the station as a reporter and quickly took on leadership roles as Interim News Director and eventually Assignment Editor. Before joining IPR, Max worked as a news director and reporter at Michigan State University's student radio station WDBM. In 2018, he reported on a Title IX dispute with MSU in his story "Prompt, Thorough and Impartial." His work has also been heard on Michigan Radio, WDBM and WKAR in East Lansing and NPR.