Racial intimidation

KKK-like incidents are being investigated at Grand Haven High School.
Krystle Wagner
Mar 3, 2013

A series of race-related incidents at Grand Haven High School are at the center of ongoing federal and criminal investigations.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is examining incidents that have occurred this school year. The incidents, characterized by a parent of a biracial student as “racial intimidation,” involve KKK-like apparel and a racial slur written on a school bus window.

A separate criminal investigation into the window incident is also ongoing.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Keith Konarska said he finds any type of racially insensitive behavior to be unacceptable, and that the school district is fully cooperating with investigators.

“Our expectations for our students are far greater,” Konarska said.

KKK-inspired incidents

The string of racially-motivated incidents began in September 2012.

As freshman Katie Bridgeforth waited for a bus after school on Homecoming Friday, she said a student wore a KKK-like white mask outside the high school’s doors.

Bridgeforth said fellow students asked the teen wearing the mask how he would feel if he were black and saw the mask, but he defended his actions by saying it was freedom of speech.

When the 15-year-old first told her mom about the incident, Lisa Hall said she couldn’t believe this would occur in this community, in this day and age.

After contacting the school with her concerns, Hall said she viewed the school’s surveillance video with her husband’s cousin and one of the school’s assistant principals, Pamela Vanderkamp.

From the footage, Hall said she could see the student wearing a mask. She then saw another student punch the mask-wearing student as a crowd gathered around the two.

“It was surreal to see,” she said.

Grand Haven High School Principal Tracy Wilson confirmed that the incident did occur, but said she was unaware if a fight broke out afterward. She added that no adults saw the event unfold.

Wilson said they became aware of the incident after Hall called the school.

Shortly after Homecoming, Bridgeforth said she and a friend overheard a conversation between two other female students on the bus ride home.

Bridgeforth said she overheard a girl say the world would be a better place if all African-Americans went back to Africa and all Hispanics went back to Mexico.

Wilson said that snippet of conversation could have stemmed from a classroom history lesson.

Another incident occurred in October, Bridgeforth said, when a student at lunch wore a dunce-like paper hat with cursive letters “KKK” written on it.

Wilson said that story has changed many times. Wilson said her interview with the Tribune was the first she heard of the hat having “KKK” written in cursive on it.

The school’s policy is strictly no hats, whether it is a winter hat or baseball cap.

Wilson said one of the school’s assistant principals, Michael Roberson, was in the cafeteria and saw a sailor-like hat from across the room, but when he looked back the student no longer wore the hat.

After reviewing the surveillance videos, school officials weren’t able to identify the student involved. Wilson said the cafeteria has containers that food comes in, which might be what a student wore upside down atop his head.

“That’s what it appears to be,” Wilson said.

Following the incident, Hall said she filed a sheriff’s report, and also complained to the U.S. Department of Education, sparking the investigation.

More recently, in early February, Bridgeforth said she and her friend were the direct subjects of harassment as they rode Bus No. 1 home from school.

“Look at those n-----s over there,” Bridgeforth said, recalling some of the dialogue used by the male students. “I’ll give you $5 if you (have sex with) one of them.”

Bridgeforth said the conversation continued with the group of five boys asking if they would ever date a black person, to which another student singled out Bridgeforth and her friend by saying, “No, they have nappy hair.”

“I can’t believe people have the guts to say that to somebody,” Bridgeforth said.

Hall said she watched the bus surveillance video, and could see the interaction between the girls and the boys. Immediately after that confrontation, her daughter laid her head in her lap until the bus reached her stop.

“It’s heart-wrenching to see it,” she said.

Although the bus’ surveillance video lacks sound and provides a grainy image, Wilson said she could tell it was an uncomfortable conversation based on the body language and reaction of the girls putting their heads down.

Wilson said their whole demeanor wasn’t confident, and that it was awful to watch, knowing some of the things that were said.

“I don’t know how they didn’t punch someone in the face,” Wilson said.

During the school’s investigation of the Bus No. 1 incident, the principal said they received further information about a student who wrote a racial slur on the bus window the day before.

Wilson said the slur was written backward on a steamed-up window on the side of the bus so passing cars could read it. 

Freshman Patrick Gardner said he was called into the office by assistant principal Vanderkamp a few days after the most recent incident and was accused of writing, “Kill all n-----s” on the bus window.

When Gardner insisted on his innocence, he said he was told that he could be suspended for up to three days if he wrote the racial slur and another seven if he lied about it.

Wilson confirmed Vanderkamp met with Gardner because a student named and identified him as the writer, and she pressed the issue because students often immediately claim their innocence.

Although Wilson wouldn’t disclose what was written on the window because it’s under investigation, she did say that the writing was inappropriate and did not contain the word “kill.”

Upon reviewing the bus surveillance footage, Wilson said they were able to determine Gardner did not write the slur and another student did.

Gardner’s mother, Megan Rohn, said the event was disheartening because her younger son, who is biracial, will most likely go through the same kind of intimidation some day.

“Something or someone has influenced them to feel that way about other races,” Rohn said.

Bridgeforth said the incidents have left her feeling unwanted, unsafe, angry and misunderstood.

“I should be Caucasian if I want to live here,” she said.

School investigations

While Wilson said five students received disciplinary measures related to the incidents, she declined to share specific details because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Generally speaking, she said that students who participate in these sorts of incidents are disciplined via the school’s harassment and bullying policy.

If an action is intentionally focused on an individual or group, the consequences are steeper because there is a victim.

The school uses both in-school and out-of-school suspensions starting at three days, although it depends on the severity of the incident. Wilson said they try to be consistent when disciplining students, but they do take into account whether a student has been in trouble previously.

“These are kids,” Wilson said. “They’re going to make mistakes.”

In addition to the school’s internal investigation into the incidents, the two other agencies’ investigations remain open.

Judy Mulder, chief of the West Ottawa Prosecuting Attorney Division, confirmed there is an ongoing criminal investigation regarding the racial slur written on the bus window.

Based on the law, Mulder said there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the threat would be carried out, but her office is looking into whether other acts were committed by the same individual, which could result in stalking charges.

Ottawa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Valerie Weiss, who oversees the School Resource Deputy Program, said the department is involved in the prosecutor’s investigation and couldn’t elaborate on the investigation until it is closed. 

The Tribune submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department seeking the incident reports. A clerk said the department is processing the request, and declined to provide those public records.

Mulder said she couldn’t immediately recall exactly what was written on the bus window, but that it was racial.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has been conducting an investigation since Dec. 6, which was initiated by Hall’s Oct. 21 complaint.

Hall said she felt the school has been negligent in how officials handled the incidents and that the incidents haven’t been appropriately dealt with as yet.

“My daughter deserves justice,” Hall said. “So do the other kids who have been bullied.”

Konarska responded to the family’s concern by saying that school officials take these issues seriously.

“We’ve worked very hard to put in place a broader understanding of issues of diversity and an appropriate response,” he said.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, wouldn’t say much about the nature or status of the investigation, other than to confirm that there is a case against the school district involving a racial harassment complaint.

Bradshaw said they don’t discuss details of investigations, but there is an allegation that the district violated civil rights laws, specifically Title 6 prohibiting discrimination of race, color and national origin. 

“It is currently under investigation,” he said.

When Konarska received the investigation notification, he said he was “obviously concerned.”

“But I understood the reason for the complaint and hope that we can benefit from the third-party review,” he said.

Konarska declined to comment on what types of information the district provided the agency during its investigation.

“It’s ongoing and we’re just cooperating in every way possible,” he said.

When asked if the Tribune could see the video surveillance of the incidents or get copies of any correspondence related to the incidents, Konarska declined to produce the public records without a FOIA request. A FOIA request was immediately presented, at which time Konarska said they’d process it. 

Facing tough issues

Following the February bus incidents, Wilson said she contacted the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance for its assistance in providing a proactive, instead of reactive, stance on these sorts of issues.

Andre Daley, the diversity group’s associate executive director, said he’s working to create additional diversity training for staff and students.

Daley said the group has collaborated with Grand Haven schools for several years. The agency and school are now working on training specific to how teachers can break down barriers and help create welcoming environments.

Through the new programming, students should learn strategies to speak up and speak out. They should also learn what to do when racist behavior happens, why it happens and how it can be prevented.

Daley said it’s about deepening the understanding of racial biases.

“That’s what’s going to break down that cycle,” he said.

Students who are being disciplined for bullying or negative behavior directed at people of other ethnicities will also be required to participate in diversity education.

Wilson said they want to make sure the school is proactive and that all of the diversity education efforts are meaningful.

“It needs to be intentional and sustainable,” Wilson said.

In the meantime, a quiet biracial girl at Grand Haven High School waits for a time when she feels welcome at the school.

Bridgeforth said she feels like it’s her against the school, and she makes sure she has friends walk with her to class to try to avoid further confrontations.

“I just hope everybody just accepts us more,” she said. “They’re not really accepting.”

 

Comments

jvanabbema

I was Kate's "Manager" for Destination Imagination way back four years ago and she is a great young girl. I just want to state my support in investigating exactly what happened here and educating the ignorant in just how horrible behavior such as this is.

beachguy

Disrespectful Grand Haven punks running their mouths. Not a huge surprise. Send these racists to Muskegon or any other much more diverse school system for the rest of the year. One way or another, my bet is these minnows experience a bit of an attitude adjustment.

itsgettingold

Where do these kids get these ideas and views from? I hate to be that guy but it seems that the parents of the idiots must share the views in some way.

GrandHavenJohn

All you have to do read the comments after the story "Not Guilty" to see that racism is alive and well in Grand Haven. That pathetic idiot was found not guilty by a jury after admitting to police that it was his handwriting on the wall, and that he did the same thing previously a couple weeks before. Maybe he has kids at Grand Haven High School? Even if the junior biggots are identified there is nothing to be done since our community is full of them anyway.

jvc

Good luck, Kate. I wish you the very best, and I'm sorry you've had these horrible experiences.

proudparent3

it's not just other races that are being discriminated though. it's also wealth. my daughter has been bullied by a Hispanic and no one stopped her! she came home with scratches down her face and nothing was done! Grand Haven hides everything that goes on to keep face! I am in the process of fighting for my daughter and me for what they have put us through!

proudparent3

I am sorry, but if these kids are getting maybe they should not only look at the parents to see how they act, but their peers and the rest of the bullying even let loose like from teachers too. It's just going to be in time that it gets taken to far because people are just sitting on their butts, not acting on the situation at stake. If students are dealing with this it must be stopped and not covered up at all.

Eyeswideopen

Sitting on their butts? How much more extra time and money needs to be spent on teaching students integrity, respect, drugs, drinking & pregnancy etc..?? Why is always the schools responsibility 24/7 ?? I don't know about you but when I was growing up, I was taught all of the above from home!! I went to school to learn various subjects..not how to act in public!! How many more assemblies need to be given to cover all these topics? & how do you expect any school employee to control over one thousand or even 500 students on any given day when most parents can't even control their ONE child at home?? I just don't get it. Everybody has to blame someone so lets blame the school? I agree!! Something needs to be done!! But for heavens sake..The school should not have to be raising our children every single minute of every single day!! Every year a handbook is sent home. How about adding--- "If you are caught drinking, smoking, bullying" etc.. etc.. You will be FINED and KICKED OUT of school for a week. No questions asked!!
BTW I volunteered at numerous schools for years!! Have you??

Thank You Keith Konarska and all the Teachers and Support team for all you do!! You go above and beyond for our community and I can speak for many, We appreciate it!!

HavenDude

This is very concerning. My unease is that the Tri-Cities area is lacking diversity, although the surrounding areas are growing increasingly diverse. Yet, the constant message is that we do not have a problem and everyone is welcome. I think it would be good for our community to have an open mind to the possible signals we send to people who are different. Will we have the courage to look deeper than our defensiveness and assumptions? Let's rise above this Grand Haven! Let's not put a band aid on the issue and pretend this stuff doesn't happen here. Let's dig deeper. I feel terrible for this girl and hope that the school is truly putting actions to their words. I also hope the kids responsible will have a change of heart.

forreal

such a shame for such a "good Christian community"!!! what about the gay kids and the acneface kids and the overweight kids and the list goes on and on and on...kids learn bad behavior from their parents or get in with the wrong crowd...something has to be done to stop this and the sooner the better. I'm so glad I don't have to go to school and endure this on a daily basis. it has to be extremely hard for these kids...

Say No To Tourist's

"good Christian community"!!! What a fool.............this aint Holland or Zeeland or even Hudsonville, ToTo.

ConcernedparentinGH

I certainly have concerns that this type of behavior is happening and hope the best for those being harassed. It just is wrong whether we are in GH or somewhere in Arkansas. It is wrong.

What also upsets me is the fact that as a parent of a high schooler, this is the first we have heard about this. Shouldn't we as parents have been notified of the potential issue so that we can reinforce that this behavior is intolerable and use it as a chance to open up conversation about this topic? Instead, keep us in the dark so it can continue and potentially get worse? Disappointing for sure.

Yaright

Our daughter graduated a few years ago from GHHS and would tell us of the horrific racial slurs that were said on her bus daily (not to her but to others). Administration knows about these events but chaulk it up to 'so and so comes from a good family, it must be a misunderstanding', and that is how the behavior is allowed to continue.

proudparent3

And that is how Grand Haven is. They hide anything that could hurt their image. This has been that way for years. They don't care unless it gets leaked. Then they cover it up. Did you know that Grand Haven had specialized cameras put in their buses about a yr ago? That have sound? So for them to say that they didn't was a blatant lie. I know this for having known many students from last year.

Walleyeslayer

I am glad that I went to GHHS in the 70s. The entire student body had about 1% ethnic diversity,and it really did not matter. We all got along and had mutual respect for one another. The only time "race" was brought up was on the track field. It's time that parents become accountable for their children and raise them with the proper code of conduct that respects and values all mankind. This is just another example of the apostasy that foreshadows our society.

Peter56

This has already been allowed to go to far. If these accusations can be proven these offenders need to be put out of the schools. It is not complicated in the least if proven they need to go.

Yaright

Wonder where it starts? My two favorite quotes from Principal Tracy Wilson;

Bridgeforth said she overheard a girl say the world would be a better place if all African-Americans went back to Africa and all Hispanics went back to Mexico.

Wilson said "that snippet of conversation could have stemmed from a classroom history lesson"

“These are kids,” Wilson said. “They’re going to make mistakes.”

whateveridonteven

I personally don't care for wilson much.
I liked the old principal better.

JJ smith

The one day at the high school I saw the kid wearing the kkk paper mask after school I walked over and confronted him and rip it off his head, tore it apart and made him appologize to everyone that circled us. I was shouting I was pissed.

Yaright

The comments of Tracey Wilson is indicative of the problems within Grand Haven - make excuses for kids who come from families that have lived in the area for a long time, and blame the victim.

The events that have taken place are disgusting and warrant the suspension and expulsion of those students involved. A food fight in the cafeteria is kids being kids; racial slurs and intimidation are anti-social behaviors and unless halted when these kids are young will only continue to perpetuate (and potentially become worse) as adults.

Additionally, I commend Ms. Hall and Ms. Bridgeforth for standing up to this type of unexcusable behavior. Well done!

Karingh

Wilson is a joke! I tried to communicate with her once in regards to something one of her teachers said in the paper...it was highly questionable and she brushed me off...lost respect for her at that exact moment. GH can do better than her!

whateveridonteven

agreed. She was the popular cheerleader when she went to high school so she doesn't have a clear understanding of all the different types of students that go to the school. She thinks that everyone cares about sports and the school. And not everyone does. She thinks that everyone is peppy, too. And no. Nope. Noooo. She's just so gah. I can't stand her sometimes. I mean no offence to her. But shes just not that great of a principal. A principal should understand all of their students in order to make the school a better place for all. When all she does is try to make it better for the sports kids and the peppy kids. It's not fair to everyone.

Say No To Tourist's

Would you expect anything less from the Grand Haven Public school system? They've stunk since the beginning of time.

GrandHavenTaxpayers

Racism is unacceptable. Bullying is unacceptable.

However, what Principal Wilson was quoted as saying is also unacceptable. "“I don’t know how they didn’t punch someone in the face,” Wilson said."

So now she is stating that violence is an understandable reaction? No, violence is also unacceptable! It is not even understandable!

The critical thinking technique of reversing the situation reveals this inconsistency. What if the victims had hit the perpetrators for supposedly racial reasons. Would she then state, "I don't know how they (the reverse victims) didn't speak racial slurs to their face!" No, of course not! That would be ridiculous.

Or is she somehow implying that students who are bullied or who are of a biracial background are justified in hitting another student? I certainly hope not!

Ms. Wilson needs to rethink her comment.

lalaland

Time to get your heads out of the sand Grand Haven public Staff. Racial intimidation appears to be a long running problem and the staff wasn't aware?
White,black,Asian,Hispanic any race no one deserves to be bullied because of their race or ethnic background. Like the comment of they are kids.JUST KIDS have been responsible for School Shootings.

JJ smith

Yup just ignore the one person who has guts to stand up for people at the highschool.

Just_saying51

Good Job JJ ! Proud of you !!! this is char by the way, he was lucky you didn't do more to him... way to stand up for people :)

Just_saying51

Good Job JJ ! Proud of you !!! this is char by the way, he was lucky you didn't do more to him... way to stand up for people :)

JJ smith

Serioulsy these kids Arnt rascist there just ignorant don't know how bad the words there Sayin hurt. There trying to be funny.

proudparent3

On a later post Istate that no these kids are not trying to be funny. I'm sorry there's no excuse for high school students to act that way. We learn from elementary on that those actions and words are wrong. Sorry, they did and do know what they are doing.

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