Racism addressed

Krystle Wagner • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:18 PM

Bridgeforth, a freshman at Grand Haven High School, has been at the center of some race-related incidents at the school.

Hall and several other parents spoke out about the incidents at Monday night's school board meeting in Central High School's gym.

The Grand Haven school district is under local and federal investigations following a series of incidents at the high school involving KKK-like apparel and a racial slur written on a school bus window.

In September 2012, Bridgeforth said a student wore a KKK-like mask after school before a fight broke out. Later in the year, Bridgeforth said she and a friend overheard a conversation on a bus ride home in which a girl said the world would be a better place if all African-Americans went back to Africa and all Hispanics went back to Mexico.

After those incidents, Hall filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In December, the agency launched an investigation into the incidents.

In February, Bridgeforth and her friend were the direct subjects of harassment as they rode the bus home from school. According to Bridgeforth, some male students on the bus said, “Look at those n----s over there. I’ll give you $5 if you (have sex with) one of them.”

Hall told the school board the district has let her down in the way it has handled the incidents.

“There’s no excuse for it,” she said.

Hall said she hoped the school district's staff will become better educated about racism, and programs are set in place for students to come forward and report incidents.

“I want you to feel her pain,” Hall told the board.

School board President Chris Houghtaling thanked Hall for her comments.

Megan Rohn also expressed her frustration to the board regarding the lack of notification when her son, Patrick Gardener, was brought into the school's office and falsely accused of writing a racial slur on the side window of Bus No. 1. Gardner, a freshman, previously said he was accused of writing, “Kill all n-----s.”

After reviewing the bus’ surveillance videos, school officials determined Gardner was innocent.

High school Principal Tracy Wilson said she couldn’t say what was written on the bus because of the open investigations, but it didn’t contain the word “kill.”

Rohn said she felt like the school was failing the students during these situations.

Joni Dunn, the mother of Bridgeforth’s friend who was with her during both bus incidents, told the school board that her daughter has been through more than any child should.

Dunn said she drove her daughter and Bridgeforth to school on Monday because the girls didn't want to ride the bus. When they arrived at the school, both girls put their hoods on like they were ashamed, Dunn said.

“They are girls, not colors,” Dunn said.

Amber Love told the board that her son, Isaac, reported an incident to her and she contacted the school about it. Love said she felt nothing was done and the school failed her son.

“These acts are appalling,” she said.

Love said students need to receive stronger consequences for their actions to learn that their actions follow them.

Paula Kendra, a member of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance Board of Directors, urged the school board to expand beyond training for administrators and optional programs for students. She challenged the board to make it a mandatory aspect of the curriculum for all grades.

On Monday, Wilson e-mailed the school's parents a copy of the announcement she read over the school’s public address system to staff and students that morning. Her announcement addressed current educational aspects the school participates in — including Calling All Colors, Restorative Circles, Capturing Kids Hearts, Anti-Bullying/Bucs Above Bullying, Team GH and Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance’s Institute for Healing Racism.

Wilson also addressed the ongoing investigations, and said the district is cooperating with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and the Office of Civil Rights.

“We do not take any of these types of situations lightly and will continue to uphold our Student Code of Conduct,” she said in her statement.

Andre Daley, associate executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, told the school board that it’s a challenging and complex issue. He said the good news is that the agency is working with the school district to address the issues through educational training and providing students with the resources to speak up.

The bad news, Daley said, is that such incidents still arise. To combat that, Daley said it needs to be looked at beyond the school campus.

“We need to look at the broader community context,” he said.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Keith Konarska said he appreciates the community’s input, and it is important for the board and himself to hear their heartfelt and sincere comments.

With the help of the diversity alliance, Konarska said they are bringing the issue to the community for resolution. He said they plan to engage residents through a committee to begin a broader dialogue about expecting tolerance.

“If one child feels harassed or threatened, it’s one child too many,” he said.

Houghtaling said they will continue to educate students and staff about combatting racism, and will do whatever it takes to make sure all children feel comfortable attending school.

“It’s my goal to make sure that happens,” he said.

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