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.”




That's interesting. I've seen siblings go through discrimination at that school, my own child is being discriminated against. And what have they done? Lied to my face, coached my kindergartener into telling a lie, and did nothing against the attacking force. I believe we all the right to speak out and Isay its now that people need to take a stand and voice what they have witnessed or heard! Because no! They sweep everything under the carpet and expect us to go along with it! This is an outrage to every person who is against bullying and discrimination and Ifor one will stand by Ms. Hall and Ms. Bridgeforth for allowing the public to see how little the school does to stop this let alone how much the school hides from the public eye!


This is disgusting. I'm almost as appalled by the comments section of this article as I am by the actual thing. Grand Haven definitely has a dark, seedy underbelly of bigotry and intolerance hiding under its claims of being the perfect community to grow up in. Tracy Wilson became the principal my last year at GH, and I'm not at all surprised that she values the reputation of the school district over actually combatting the roots of the problem. While I'm lucky to have reaped the educational benefits of growing up in the GH district, I'm almost ashamed to announce that now. Many kids here are closed-minded and quick to form cliques and cast judgment - just like their parents. And they can be ruthless. While I was never a victim, you'd have to consciously be looking the other way (and clearly Wilson is) not to see what's going on. The response to a boy in my neighborhood committing suicide nearly two years ago now was "Bucs Above Bullying", a program that is a complete and utter JOKE. GH staff thinks it's okay to pull some lazy generic agenda together to make it look like they're taking action. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at recent events.

Don't get me wrong, GHAPS is a good place to get an education, if your only definition of an education is the grades you earn. But if you expect any compassion beyond that - make sure you're white, straight, and middle class.....


Thank you! Finally a student that knows!


Well said! Kudos to you! I have a freshman there, see also says Bucs Above Bullying is a JOKE!


You are so right! I also was a student at Grand Haven, and although it was a great school to receive an education, it was absolutely full of discrimination. For many reasons...I remember kids driving all over the parking lots with their confederate flags flying high... I remember kids bragging about how theyd gone to a 'gay bar' the night before and beat people up just for the fun if it...i remember kids writing racial slurs on the walls... I remember one kid even giving another, who happened to be of a different race, a noose in a box. And the kid who gave that box happened to be super popular, wealthy and all the teachers loved him! So nothing was done, of course. I do remember Tracy Wilson wanting to be more popular with the students that being a leader. I remember kids being bullied because of having acne, not wearing name brands, being a different religion, different color, not having the right hair style, etc... I realize that is a part of life, unfortunately, and that it happens everywhere, unfortunately... But for those that want to say that Grand Haven is such a perfect place, and this doesn't happen here, well that is just plain ignorant and ridiculous. I have chosen to send my children to a school that has much more diversity, and I am so grateful that they have the opportunity that I didn't have. I hope that this allows them to be more well rounded, courteous, respectful, loving, tolerant members of society. Thank you ghgraduate for speaking up about this. It gave me the courage to speak up with you! Grand Haven has been this way for years, it's long overdue for a change... After all, the attitude of the students is merely a reflection of the attitude of the community...


If you've seen discrimination at GHHS it's been isolated, because I know for certain it is not taught there. If there was an "attacking force" you should alert the boys down in the National Guard, and maybe they will bring out a field piece. I will say it again: The GHHS staff is professional and conscientious and competent, and they will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or wildly inappropriate behavior. Ugly incidents occur, but that's part of life and we learn and grow from them. I always told my kids they would never get in trouble from me for defending themselves or others, but it was clear to them as well that any sort of bullying was not acceptable. Unlike others on this forum, I think violence is sometimes the solution to this problem. If my kids got bullied (they never did, curiously), they were told it was entirely OK by me to smash their tormentor right in the face. I know it works. End of problem.


Then you yourself are as ignorant as those who say bullying doesn't happen and discrimination doesn't happen. Maybe your own children were ones dishing out the bullying. Have you stopped to think that. No, because like many others, you think that the staff takes care of it. News flash, they hide it. They don't take care of it at all. And I have many witnesses who would/will go to a pta meeting and call everyone out for it. Because the truth is, those who don't WANT to see the truth live a too sheltered life.


Ignorant I am not, proudparent. You don't know me, and I've had a few addresses in my day. I never said bullying and discrimination do not occur. Newsflash for you, though: That's an unfortunate part of life. Deal with it any way you must. To claim that GHHS staff would make the effort to "hide" these matters, rather than addressing them, is a reckless and irresponsible statement. I won't presume to know your situation, so don't presume to know mine.


Ah, the GH TABLOID strikes again! "KKK-like incidents..." I see here one indisputable incident and racism. Yes, racism exists. Shocker! Yes, it is wrong. Yes, everyone should be accepted and treated the same regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, length of nose, etc, etc. and those who have the guts, ignorance, or immaturity to act otherwise need to be held accountable. I see that this has happened. Tolerance and acceptance of others begins in the home. It is enforced elsewhere. I see that this has also happened. The GH community, and the America of today, does not tolerate racism or discrimination. Of course discriminations still exist and many people continue to need education.
I feel deeply for this student, dealing with this in a school of 2,000 kids and I really feel for her now that her mother has singled her out to those 2,000 kids. Fear not, and give the other 1,996 students at GHHS credit, for Norris Ellis (african-american) and Shar'rae Davis (african-american) were voted Homecoming King and Queen in 2011. This does not sound like a racist school to me.
In addition, be mindful of context. Be mindful of media sway. It is not fact because you see it in print. Use your own critical thinking and intellectual skills if you have them when reading the "quotes" of others.


The school isn't racist. It's open and tolerant to all walks of life. I do think that some students can be stupid and rude to one another but that is nothing new. And yes, people need to be more mindful of how the media changes stories. Because people are believing this article in full swing. And it's completely blown out of proportion.


Racism is a terrible occurrence, and it is no secret that it happens in Grand Haven. But unfortunately, it exists is many other parts of the country as well. Quickly labeling all GHHS students as "punks" or accusing Tracy Wilson of being incompetent is just as ignorant as using a racial slur. The actions of these hateful kids were the fault of themselves and their parents. There are 1800 kids in that high school. Not all of them are hateful, mean, and ignorant. I truly am sorry for Ms. Bridgeforth and any other student who has felt victimized. I am also sorry for the kind-hearted students who now have a tarnished reputation because of hasty assumptions.

Say No To Tourist's

Its been going on since the late 70's Don't kid yourself that this is all recent, the Grand Haven school system has been covering this kind of stuff up for years...........


Just wanted to add my 2 cents...It's quite possible the person on the bus or whatever talking about blacks goin back to africa, mexicans back to mexico is a joke told in the movie "Boondock Saints" he/she might of seen the movie and was telling a friend the joke.. so Have a Coke and Chill. I too graduated from the Grand Haven Senior High and I can't remember anything racist happening.. then again I can't remember much of my High School High Days..Peace Be With Ya'll.


Smitty, were you there when the incident occurred? Just because it didn't happen to you in high school, doesn't give you the right to insist that there isn't a problem. Your opinion isn't even worth 2 cents and unless you witnessed what happened first hand you should shut up.


Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Profane, obscene, sexual or derogatory language.


hey man. Chill out. You should shut up too. Because that was rude. I haven't seen any racism and I've been at the high school for four years. No I was not there. But. Still people need to calm down about this. It happens. Stuff like this happens EVERYWHERE. so calm your horses. Just solve the issue without making a big scene. OH WAIT. it's already blown across the universe out of proportion.


I live in this community and have for just over 10 years. I have lived in many places and have never lived in a community that was so closed minded and racist. These incidents at the High School come as no surprise to me. What surprises me is that it hasn't happened before now, but maybe it has. Grand Haven is very good at hiding their outdated, closed minded attitudes. After all, they need the tourists! The Diversity Alliance is desperately needed. This place feels like 1960's pre-civil rights movement. Let's get caught up with the times people! Let's embrace ALL colors and ethnicities.




This town, while beautiful on the outside is UGLY on the inside. I have NEVER been anywhere that is so HATE filled and it doesn't even matter the color of your skin!


Before the usual suspects condemn me as a racist, insensitive, boorish, or un-American, let me state at the outset that the behaviors described in the article, especially those clearly directed at particular students, were wrong and should be punished - school administrative discipline, parental discipline, and shaming by fellow students should suffice.

Having said that, a question must be raised - Have We All Gone Completely Nuts? To read many of the comments to a situation that was unnecessarily hyped by a local paper, one would think that we are living in the time of Mississippi Burning, with many mini Torquemada's waiting to straighten out the seething racism within the local borders - talk about a lynch mob - attack Grand Haven and its residents; attack the school system; attack the principal; bring on a criminal investigation - can the Lakeshore Diversity Alliance, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton be far behind?

Let's get some perspective - a very small number of high school students (3 or 8, depending on the story and whether wearing an upside down food container on one's head is considered the equivalent of Bull Connor at Selma) out of over 1,700 students behaved badly and, yes, stupidly. Our new Secretary of Defense, in speaking to a group of German students bragged that in the United States, you "have a right to be stupid, if you want to be." but not in Grand Haven. Here, a nothing short of a criminal complaint can assuage the hurt feelings of a parent - No Justice No Peace.

Some have suggested additional re-education for the culprits, as though they have not been bombarded with information and warnings that racial bias and harassment is wrong - if not from their parents, from the school system, from the media, from politicians, and yes, from their peers. These kids are going to wish they had only received a punch in the face when they discover what today's culture has in store for them.

And I saw no comments on the fact that The United States Department of Education has opened an investigation into these incidents. No wonder we, as a nation, are broke. Does anyone have any idea of how many communities the size of Grand Haven there are nationwide, and how many similar incidents occur? What is the evidence that the local school system, the local community, and the local police department are so ill-equipped to deal with the transgressions of a few students that the federal government has to become involved? And how many similar investigations have been initiated based on reverse discrimination in all of the urban areas of this country? Can anyone say "Double Standard?" Can anyone explain it to our students?

Well, I hope all of this soul-searching, all of these accusations, do some good, but somehow I doubt it. Does anyone really believe that blowing things out of proportion to the extent of federal investigations and criminal charges will improve the lives of the kids who were victimized, the kids who were accused (including the one boy who was named and who was wrongly accused), or the 99% of the kids who did nothing to have this spotlight put on them? I think not. I suspect that this kind of excess and double standard will confirm the previously held convictions of some. I sincerely hope that the students who were the victims of this harassment will be able to put this behind them, and I am confident that this community, and its sons and daughters, will help them, once the bureaucrats and those with an agenda get out of their way.


Yes, let's get some perspective! Just because one case has made the papers, does not mean it is the ONLY incident of racial intimidation or bullying that has happened, the difference is this Mom didn't take no for an answer and it has FINALLY been brought public. I wouldn't be surprised if more families start speaking out now...........


really, yall think GHHS kids hate black people???
(one word: ignorance)


I think most of the kids are good kids who wouldn't dream of saying these hurtful things. At the same time, they don't hang out with kids of color or ask them over. There's a difference between being polite and being accepting and inclusive.

I find the principal's attitude extremely alarming.


OMG!!!! This has become sooooo much of a Racial issue and that is not what it is all about! I know that most of you have no clue as the the real and total truth of this story! If the school would have just kept the Moms informed as to what was taking place it would not have gone as far as it has!!! Being a Parent and Grandparent it is so hard to sit back and see them hurting! No one knows the pain, hurt and anguish that they have gone through. It does not matter what color you are, we are all the same and should respect each other this way. Everyone of us wants to be accepted and fit in wherever we are. There are those that really don"t care,but these are young people that someday will be running our country and don't we as adults want them to be taught the meaning of "RESPECT". These are 2 young girls that have been subjected to a situation(as Horrible as it was,which I say again, you don't have the whole story)this should have NEVER happened!! Black, White, Hispanic or any other Nationality no one deserves this!!!


This whole thing is about "Image". I'm a current student of GHHS I may not be bullied myself but I won't pretend it isn't there. Yes, this may seem to be getting taken too far but in reality its not. Just like the famous saying, "You don't know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes" we can't say that this is "going too far" because for some people or the victims for that matter this isn't going far enough. A change is needed and it may take the entire community to make that change but if we take this situation and use it to work off of we all can make this town a better place for everyone starting with kids in GHAPS.


WELL SAID GH2013! You stated, "A change is needed and it may take the entire community to make that change." Could you elaborate further? What are your thoughts and ideas on how to accomplish this?


We need more young people thinking the way you do!!! Thank You for your support!!


A change is needed in the Tri-Cities. Young and old alike, together we can bring about change to make our community an inviting and accepting place to live and work.

I graduated from GHHS in the '70s. Shortly after graduation I left the area. Since that time, living and traveling throughout the US and abroad, I have learned what it means to embrace diversity, not a lesson I learned at all in the GH public schools. We were kids, our parents were young as were our teachers and most administrators. Perhaps we did not know better.

Throughout school in GH, I was bullied, not because I was of a different race but because I was not Protestant, was not born in GH, was not Dutch, was not thin, was not miserable in life, was not from a single-parent home, was not "fashionable", lived on the "wrong" side of US-31, was not dumb, was not..., was not...., etc... I wasn't like those who did the bullying hence I was the one being bullied. They could do it AND get away with it. I told the bullies to STOP and it continued. Throughout school, my parents were told it was a "phase" and "kids will be kids", etc... Always some excuse or another. The only option was to "stay away from the bullies." I know this is why I moved away after graduation. I know families that moved away or pulled their kids from the public schools and sent them elsewhere because that was the option. "It is what it is."

Today is a different day. We, as a nation, have different (better?) support systems. We know better, having learned through the mistakes of our past. We are empowered to stop bullying before it starts.

I am here for you, Hall-Bridgeforth family (and all others who are or have been bullied). You have my support, whatever it takes to overcome the "stick our heads in the sand" attitudes acceptance in the name of tolerance. No more.


Our city, our world is currently faced with monumental challenges that will require creative, “out of the box thinking” in order to develop successful strategies and solutions. Through diversity, we can achieve this.

“Diversity is a commitment to recognizing and appreciating the variety of characteristics that make individuals unique in an atmosphere that promotes and celebrates individual and collective achievement.
Examples of these characteristics are: age; cognitive style; culture; disability (mental, learning, physical); economic background; education; ethnicity; gender identity; geographic background; language(s) spoken; marital/partnered status; physical appearance; political affiliation; race; religious beliefs; sexual orientation.” (The University of Tennessee Libraries Diversity Committee Spring 2001; Revised January 2003)

I am attaching a link to a film that was provided by Professor Jean-Paul Restoule, University of Toronto in the Aboriginal Studies course. Ironically, this material was recently provided to us for our course studies but after reading today’s news article, I can’t think of a better time or a place where it could/should be used to broaden the understanding of diversity. I encourage everyone to watch, share, discuss and integrate!


A while back a man came to our school and held an assembly on bullying. I believe most students would remember this assembly because there wasn't a dry eye in the room. When I spoke to Mrs. Wilson about bringing him back she said that the cost of him coming back was around 4,000 dollars. I believe if our community could hold fundraisers to save money to bring him back he could do again to our students what he did a few years back...open our eyes to reality. I believe his name was Michael and most administrators would know exactly the assembly since it touched so many hearts.



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