East High students’ racially charged social media posts anger community groups

DENVER -- Community groups are outraged after they say a group of East High School students were given a slap on the wrist for a series of racially charged public postings on social media.

The social media posts were made this month by a group of white female students. Parents say they were never notified even though the school was looking into it.

Now several community groups are asking Denver Public Schools and East High to do more in light of the racism and bullying they say is allowed to continue.

In the public posts, the group of white girls changed their handles to racially insensitive names. In photo captions, they repeatedly used a racially derogatory word.

They also posted racially insensitive pictures. Some said one is a depiction of black face, and in the caption an abbreviation of the n-word is used.

“Our students feel hurt and afraid. There are student groups that are constantly being harassed in their everyday experience right now. Going to school should feel like a safe place and it doesn’t for our students. They feel targeted and they feel unprotected,” said one youth activist who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation against the groups she works with.

“It's extremely sad. I think that’s why we are trying to make sure it doesn’t get swept under the rug because it’s too typical,” she said.

She said East High might be the most diverse school in Denver, but it isn’t proving to be the most inclusive.

“Just because you have black, brown and white students in the same school doesn’t mean you are treating them the same way or equitably,” she said.

Now she’s calling for the students involved to face stiffer punishment.

As she sees it, the most problematic piece in this series of public racism is a text communication among the girls.

“When they experienced the backlash amongst their peers and they knew they wouldn’t be punished,” she said of texts exchanged where one of the girls writes, “I mean nothing is going to happen to me.”

One of the girls said she has been apologizing by “texting black people all day.”

Denver Public Schools released a statement on the situation.

“With regard to certain social media posts by students at East High School, we cannot state strongly enough that the images and words used are repugnant and offensive to our community. Disciplinary action was taken in this case and will be taken in any similar case in accordance with, and to the full extent of, our discipline policy. Because of federal law protecting student privacy, we cannot discuss specifics of individuals involved or the disciplinary action taken… At East and throughout the district, we greatly value our diversity and respect among all students. East is a school proud of its rich diversity and continually striving to create an inclusive culture. Our students have been, and continue to be, strong voices for social justice in our community. Students, faculty and school leaders at East have taken action and will be taking further action to discuss issues of bias and racism, and focus on our core values of diversity and inclusion.”

The youth activist said the community and students deserve more.

"They felt bold enough to post publicly and they should be dealing with the consequences publicly,” she said.

A letter was sent to the district and signed by several of the groups.

“Recently, the groups signed below learned of a racially charged incident that occurred at East High School in Denver. White students used the "N" word multiple times, made light of the word by changing their social media names to include the “N” word in their names, and posted offensive photos. The students' texts revealed that they were receiving complaints from students of color but they did not believe they would be held accountable.

Not all of the involved students received consequences and the ones who did initially received only one day of suspension. Pressure from students and others led the administration to extend the suspensions to three days. To date, inquiries for more and accurate information on the incident and restorative justice measures taken by East have been denied due to alleged privacy concerns.

A group of students asked for support regarding their belief that their school administration was not equitably handling racially charged public social media postings by a few white students at East HS. The culture of inclusion and cultural competency remains deficient and unaddressed according to several students and anonymous staff and administrators at East.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) claims they want to address the dropout rate and achievement gap for students of color but allowing racial trauma to thrive is doing the exact opposite. DPS and East HS (as one of Denver’s most diverse high schools) must set the example and become a "Zero Tolerance for Hate" district. The district must take a careful look at how for generations it has dismissed the harm that hate incidents have caused to school/culture and on student achievement. The “normalized” incidents of interpersonal racism at East HS and across the district can no longer remain a part of the culture if we are truly committed to eliminating the achievement gap.

After much pressure from community members and organizations for transparency, more restorative justice measures and more education on harm caused to students of color, the East HS Principal Andy Mendelsberg posted a generic letter on the East HS website. While it is a good first step, it does not come anywhere close to the specific issues that need to be addressed as a result of this incident. The generic posting is insufficient and does not reflect a legitimate commitment to shifting the “normalized” culture of racism.

The undersigned organizations want more transparency on this incident as well as more transparency in the efforts to reduce harm caused by racist acts. Incidents like this one should be shared with family and community members before they lead to more serious incidents.

As a result of the lack of understanding of privilege, power, and equity at East HS and DPS, the community is requesting:

  • A transparent depiction of the incident (see screenshots on next page)
  • A school-wide assembly on the issues of racism, white privilege, equity and power
  • A more meaningful form of restorative justice by the offenders in addressing the harm to the entire black community--preferably facilitated by experts in restorative justice
  • A public apology to the black student community (not just a handful of student leaders) by the students who committed this racist offense
  • Public statement on what East HS is doing specifically to bring about a better understanding of power, privilege and equity and who is doing it
  • A long-term plan for addressing privilege, power and equity at East HS
  • An acknowledgement from East and DPS how students of color are frequently disciplined more harshly than white students for less serious incidents. We know that DPS and the State are addressing disproportionate suspensions and expulsion of Black and Latino students in the early grades. We are asking that DPS and East HS also transform policies that disproportionately protect privileged students in higher grades.
  • Guarantee that organizations and students who have escalated this issue will not be blocked, targeted, or excluded from East HS or East opportunities"

The letter was signed by Project Voyce, Accountability for Greatness, Denver Justice Project, Ashmore Duval Consulting, Shop Talk Live, Big Hair, Bigger Dreams, and Black Lives Matter 5280.