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

ghgraduate

I remember this man well. The problem is that, just like almost everything else "inspirational", there was a short-term effect, but almost everyone had forgotten about it within a couple of weeks. GH kids are too sheltered and homogenous to understand firsthand the kind of discrimination and impoverished conditions he talked about, so it didn't make a lasting impression. I think the "don't be a zebra" slogan for Bucs Above Bullying came from this guy, too, but it just made people take it even less seriously (some kids got disciplined for their zebra print clothing or accessories because the staff assumed they were trying to make fun of it). What Grand Haven needs is not another guest speaker, but something that makes these issues near and personal to them.

WestMIweather

It reassuring to read sensible comments today maintaining perspective. To previous posters, Administration has changed hands since the late 70's. Did any of you bring concerns forward then or attempt to make your concerns known today? It's easy to complain and point than it is to be part of any solution but times have changed. The community needs to be responsible for change IF they feel a problem exists. GH2013 offers a realistic suggestion.
In support of a passionate and involved Principal, it takes a team to run a building as large as ours. This position does not hold absolute power. This position answers to and is directed by a Superintendent. Remember that.
In response to her "comment," I too could be surprised that the natural response of basic human nature when feeling attacked did not happen. Would I have said that I wanted the girls to punch someone? No. Would I have said that I would condone such an act? No.
My hope is that a calm and sensible body is present at the board meeting Monday night to assess our needs and to support our educators and students now living under a microscope.

biped

It seems like year after year there have been several anti-bullying and tolerance programs implemented in the local schools, but it's as if they have had little effect. Kids are learning this crap at home and bringing it to school. The offending students and their parents need to be held accountable.

Smitty

Yer a Tool.

GH2013

I agree that it has a "short-term affect" but what else can we do. You can't force kids to act a certain way or even think a certain way but even if its short term it veers people in the right direction. The zebra stunt was out of hand but mainly because our school made that idea into a huge deal and like many other things administration tries to enforce kids don't want to listen.. that is EXACTLY why bringing other people into school that have personal experiences or those who have been on the other side that can even RELATE to kids could benefit the student body immensely.

christopher

This Wilson seems to be a real piece of work. Between the quotes in this article and the articles last year about the major student crash on the way to the championship game. I think GHAPS needs to provide some training in media relations, public relations and interview skills.

christopher

This Wilson seems to be a real piece of work. Between the quotes in this article and the articles last year about the major student crash on the way to the championship game. I think GHAPS needs to provide some training in media relations, public relations and interview skills.

Bytheshore4

I HAVE A DREAM

Psmith

Camera’s watching our children that’s creepy

Unrepresented

Racist behavior is certainly learned in the home. In Grand Haven the behavior is reinforced by the GH Tribune, the leaders of the Grand Haven High School, and the half-hearted efforts of our County Prosecutor in race-related cases. Wise up Grand Haven, we live in a racist community and the leaders of our community are guilty as much as some of these kids parents.

Boater

That is baloney. It's not taught at home. Have you ever watched anything on Comedy Central? That is where high school kids get their ideas. Most of the teens watch those shows and they talk about them the next day at school. Where the kids lack maturity is that they do not separate comedy from real life. Some of those shows are brutal.
You cannot state that we live in a racist community. That's hogwash too. I'm so tired of some people trying to paint an entire community with a broad brush because of a small group of ignorant young people. We moved to this area because it was a safe community, has good marinas and beautiful sunsets.

ghgraduate

Ah yes, blame the media. Video games create violence! TV creates racism! Have some accountability and recognize that parents are the #1 influence in a kid's life - and if you think the media's influence is a problem with your kids, then confront it!

SL_RESIDENT

Well said iCitall. This was an isolated incident that involved a few kids that have clearly made poor decisions. They are being dealt with law enforcement and the school district. Proper action and procedure is being followed. To blame the entire school system, principle Wilson, Grand Haven residents, parents, and students, is completely ridiculous. It's sad and wrong to label the entire Grand haven community as the problem. The media tends to take things out of context and stretch the truth to make the story more compelling. I feel sorry for the victims of this unfortunate incident. Ms. Bridgeforth and her family have my deepest sympathy. What happened here is completely unacceptable. We live in a world where, like it or not, racism is still an issue. We as a nation have made great strides to treat every race as equals. We have not completely rooted this problem. This incident could happen at any school, city, or state in our country. It's unfortunate and wrong. It doesn't mean that teachers, principles, families, and residents are all racists and haven't done their jobs. Please think about what you are saying before commenting on this issue and hiding behind you anonymous username. Don't lose sight of what caused this story in the first place, four immature kids who made BIG mistakes.

-Concerned life-long Spring Lake resident.

Lanivan

Although on the surface, this might seem an isolated and minor incident, but in fact is more likely a symptom of the structural racism that exists to some degree or another everywhere in our country. It's highly unlikely the boys involved in the racist, bullying behaviors are acting out to show off - their behavior has been learned from their upbringing, and is reinforced by their friends who are of like mind. In fact, they might be wondering why the big deal. Remember the empty lawn chairs representing our president, hanging from a tree, and all the many comments that insisted it was just an expression of our 1st Amendment rights? You'll note that one of the boys is quoted as defending his comments as being just that.

This attitude is not unique to Grand Haven. Racism is built on fear - fear of losing control and lack of respect for others different from you, and is promoted by the rich and powerful so that they remain so. It's in our politics, churches, communities, workplace. It has to be fought against constantly, as an insidious and ever-constant dark undercurrent of our society.

I think the approach taken by the school administration is a good and proper one. If they don't show these boys and the community that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated, I doubt anyone else, including parents and peers, will get through to them at this point. These teenage boys and their friends who agree with them are forming lifelong attitudes and behaviors of bullying and racism - maybe, just maybe, they will be forced to think about what and why, and learn from their mistakes.

Vladtheimp

It must be nice to be able to pontificate about nationwide "structural racism" which is built on " fear - fear of losing control and lack of respect for others different from you, and is promoted by the rich and powerful so that they remain so."

Pontificate this for me: by your definition, minorities, who don't have control and are not rich and powerful, cannot be racists. Can you truly believe such a preposterous proposition? I will name names if you like.

Lanivan

Unfortunately, and I take no pleasure in stating this, racial discrimination is an equal opportunity mindset - and can manifest in so many ways. Cultural, ethnic, class, religious, minority, majority - all can be forms of discrimination, but if you stop and think about it, isn't it always based on fear - fear of the unknown and losing control over the known?

I write this from a place where all those kinds of racism have been deeply embedded in the culture for centuries. It is managed, in part, through vast, fabulous gated communities and private schools - diversity-free, but it apparently works.

I'm proud of the stand the GHHS administrators have taken - for their courage in not allowing the proverbial slippery slope of intolerance to start rolling.

ghgraduate

Racism is a system of power. The oppressed cannot oppress their oppressors - that's a logical fallacy. Reverse racial discrimination is possible, but minorities cannot be racist. http://www.antiracistworkshop.or...

Lanivan

Anyone can be racist.....it's the lazy way to make yourself seem superior at the expense of someone else, usually someone different than yourself. You don't earn your perceived superiority, you achieve it by putting someone else down.

sirhansalot

SL_Resident, how do you know this was an isolated incident? are you a student at GHHS? Do you teach at the school?

Eyeswideopen

Sirtalksalot---- I'm going to take you on a little reality tour because I am so bored with your close minded statements. Not to be disrespectful but (in my opinion) you need a little reality check.

Picture this if you can. In the 80's I played basketball for ghaps. Not far from Grand Haven we played against another team on their turf in their city. Not only were there police officers escorting us out of the bus once we got to the opponents school, the police officers waited outside of the locker room so the other team wouldn't bully us. (ok..to be honest, beat the crap out of us) Thankfully they stayed throughout the game and once again escorted us back to our bus.

For our last and final stop, I would like to take you to another neighboring school district. In this district they have problems with asians vs hispanics.

I think you know where this is going. So with that said.."Please consider all facts. How can Grand Haven be so racist but they are not?"

surferchick

I've gone to Grand Haven my whole life and I realized there are only a handful, if that, of teachers that aren't white and I think that shows how racist Grand Haven really is.

Boater

So, WHO exactly is racist? The people who live here OR the people who refuse to move here because of the white population?

sirhansalot

BOATER ...you are a great example of a .....Adversive racist Thank you for showing what kind of people live here in grand haven..... Avert racism is when a person has negative feelings toward a particular race and uses a non-racist reason to "justify" their negative thoughts, opinions or actions of them. Though subtle and indirect, aversive racism has consequences as significant and serious as overt racism such as the restriction of economic opportunity.

Boater

You are full of it. I am not a racist, I hold no hatred in my heart. With your backwards thoughts, you are unable to think outside your closed mind. If I am wrong, tell me where my comments were racist. Did I speak ill or show any hatred towards my fellow man? NO, I did not. I asked a question that you couldn't answer so then, as a foolish person you throw the "Racist" accusation at me. YOU are the reason why the cry of racism is losing its credibility. YOU cannot lob attacks like that. It's cowardly and YOU do a great DISSERVICE to those who are committing a moral crime against fellow human beings.

sirhansalot

you said it not me Boater "OR the people who refuse to move here because of the white population" Who are you refering to ?

2nd amendment 4 life

He simply asked a question. He never accused anyone of racism and was not being racist in anyway. I actually believe that it's people like you (sirhansalot) that keep racism alive and kicking, just searching constantly to find anything that you could play the race card on. Why are there so few black teachers? Your logic: "they didn't get the job because they are black, and everyone hates blacks". Is this not what you implied? Are you accusing grandhaven of not hiring and individual because of their race?

Boater

People, Human Beings. Regardless of what you think. You see, you are the one with the prejudices. You categorize people, label them and if it doesn't fit what you think your mind immediately goes to race. I think you need some serious self examination.

Boater

My comment is directed to sirhansalot. I agree with 2nd Amendment.

SLHS 74

Kudo's to JJ for sticking up for others. I feel horrible for the young ladies who had to go thur this. I can say that in the early 70's my parents were going to buy a new house in Grand Haven untill I refused to attend GHHS. As bad as SLHS could be at times it was hands down better then Grand Haven. In my professional life, I have known a few GHHS grads that complained of the snobbery and exculsion that they also experienced in Grand Haven. These people graduated in the late 60's. Not much has changed just a new victum

chasingsunsets

GHAPS has a history of ignoring bullying from Middle school on up. Their "hands are tied" and "kids will be kids" is the common theme from from the Administrators. Katie is not the first child to be bullied because of her race, she is the first to take it beyond the school!
Kids are bullied from all walks of life, nationality, socioeconomic class, etc here in Grand Haven. My own child was bullied, bushed in front of an oncoming bus, tortured and harassed and threatened in front of a vice principal as we were walking down the hall and what was done, nothing. I have pulled my children from GHAPS and was not the only parent at the time, 7 other families pulled their kids when I pulled mine for the same problem.

It is not for any of us to judge the effect the comments have on these kids or any others, it is our job as a community to make sure EVERY child feels safe, secure and is able to receive an education. When children are bullied, it affects their ability to learn, their entire well being. The effects carry on and affect a child well past leaving GHAPS, the damage can be extreme. IT HAS TO STOP.

Bullying does start in the homes, whoever said it didn't is wrong, but it can end there to. Unfortunately when the community and the GHAPS administration ignore it, it won't. Ms. Wilson is a problem, I have seen and dealt with her head in the sand attitude first hand, but she isn't the only problem from my personal experience, it goes higher up than her.

Open your eyes Grand Haven and take a stand, stop worrying about how such a thing will affect the tourist trade and start protecting your own!

I hope this gains national attention and the GHAPS school system is finally held responsible for all the children who suffered bullying in their school that they ignored. It won't undo the damage done to children already affected, but it will prevent others from being damaged.

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