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

SecurityDude

I have personally contacted the superintendent of the school district a couple of times to offer security services for the HS and other schools as needed. Pretty sad to think about this type of harassment happening in a school. The sad part is that MOST schools who have a "resource officer" have them there only part time AND have to pay approximately 1/2 of the officer's wages for the year... WE could get someone there full time for less per hour than what is being paid for PART time work from a police officer... Come on GRAND HAVEN PUBLIC SCHOOLS!!! Open your eyes.

GrandHavenTaxpayers

Thank you, SL Resident. Your comments sum up the situation nicely.

vanessaA

Interesting that BECAUSE the MOTHER is making a big deal about it, the GHAPS representatives and staff are acting like it's a big deal to them. I went to Grand Haven Public Schools; Robinson elementary, where on my first day of school, I got on the bus and a girl my age pulled my hair and told me there was "no room" for "my kind" on the bus. Another boy my age called me the N word... in 1st grade. Did these kids receive any punishment AT ALL? No.
Later, as I got to know this girl better and we continued to attend Grand Haven schools together, I found out that her family has a history of being members of the KKK and her home had photos of her grandfather posed with the KKK in full attire.
The racist intimidation and harassment did not stop there. It was ongoing all through my experience at GHAPS. Junior high, High School... I was called a racial slur on a DAILY basis, it was written on my folders, my locker and shouted at me as I walked down the hallway.
One day, a PRINCIPAL STRIP SEARCHED ME WITHOUT MY PARENTS CONSENT. They were looking for cigarettes (good reason to strip search a child!) because I was hanging out across the street from the school, before school started with another kid who was smoking cigarettes. The woman who strip searched me only half-way apologized for her wrong doing, saying "I apologize if you feel like someone did something wrong", and she only did that because my mother demanded it. I was harassed by staff and students alike, the entire time I went to GH schools. My family should have sued them after that incident, but my father was working for GHAPS at the time and was afraid to lose his job.
After I dropped out of highschool in the 9th grade, because I just couldn't take it anymore, I attended what used to be "Elliott", the alternative highschool. The racial abuse continued there, full force. The only time anything was ever done, was when I was completely fed up again with being called every racial slur in the book, on a daily basis and I wrote a letter to the superintendent of GHAPS. It was a strong letter, that he could not ignore. So, in response we had "diversity day" which involved my family inviting other non-white adults to have a party at the school. Pretty lame right? You can imagine how I was no longer a target after that (insert sarcasm). Shortly after that, the Ethnic diversity alliance was formed and we healed Grand Haven of racism once and for all!
Clearly, this racism thing has been a problem in Grand Haven since property owners refused to sell land to anyone who wasn't white, a long time ago.
Remember when kids burned a cross in a black family's front lawn? I do.
I wonder when GHAPS is going to take this seriously and get tougher on these children of racist families. Probably when someone gets killed because of it.
Shame on you GHAPS, you are at it again.

Inthethickofitblonde

It seems much of the blame is focused on the Grand Haven Public School system and the faculty, including administration. I believe that most of the fault lies in the homes. There will be people who are fearful and uneducated wherever you live. So, teach your children to be kind and do what is right regardless of what everyone else is doing. Teach them that education is important so work hard. It's OK if everyone doesn't like you. That doesn't end when you get out of High School. Teach them that people are human. Look up the definition of grace and teach it to them, I am certain we have all been shown more than we deserve. Check out what mercy is and live by it. Kill your enemies with kindness.
These posts have got to end. Let the agencies involved deal with the problem. If you are all so upset with how things are handled here in Grand Haven, perhaps it is time for you to head over where the grass is greener. You know, there is always greener grass on the other side.
Quit stirring the pot and give people the benefit of the doubt. If you could have managed the High School better, you should have applied. If you could have coached the team better, you should have applied. You know, all of these jobs would be 90% easier without the parents.
Set a good example. Support people in these positions and respect them. You don't have to like all that they do but they have earned these positions.
Can you imagine how Tracy Wilson feels reading these childish and downright mean comments? If you all spent as much time praying for our leadership in Grand Haven as you do whining and complaining, you may find yourself with nothing to do in all your spare time.
I wonder if you all would say what you have said if you had to sign your name...

chasingsunsets

And you my dear are where the problem lies. Don't hold the school accountable? It happened on their property during their watch, they ignored it, they are as accountable as the perpetrators and their parents.

As for Ms. Wilson taking heat for her cruel and extremely unprofessional comments, she made those comments knowing full well they could be printed.
She opened herself up to it.

One can pray that this has a positive outcome, not just for the children that were damaged, but also for the school system and the future children that will someday attend there.

Inthethickofitblonde

Why don't you poll the little white boys and girls who are teased because they wear glasses, have red hair and buck teeth...Probably have been teased beyond tears. Is that a hate for white kids who have red hair, buck teeth and bad eyes?
Please don't call me "your dear" lest that be confused with sexual discrimination. I didn't say kids shouldn't be held accountable. What I said was, before kids get to High School they should have been taught some foundational basics to living with people who may be different than them. To blame what these kids are doing on the GHHS or the acting Principal seems like we are giving the GHHS system a little too much credit. Do you just quit being a parent when your kids go to HS?
The things that are going on weren't just an idea that some brainless kid decided to run with on a whim. Who even considers saying some of the things that have been said...Unless you have the dialogue with your children regarding things you DON'T do and say, before your kids are grown, they may have to learn the hard way as to what is appropriate and not. Yes, hold people accountable. Make sure kids are educated and by all means help parents to stay connected with their kids, know what is going on and be in the moment.
Yes, mean kids are around. If each of us takes care of OUR children, perhaps that is where we should start.
Call me naive. I still wish to stay positive and believe GH is a great place for my kids to get their education.

chasingsunsets

As the saying goes, it take a community to raise a child.

I don't need to poll any kids to know just how incredibly damaging bullying and intimidation of any kind is to a child, I live with the damage done by it EVERY SINGLE DAY. My child was definitely given an education through GHAPS, but it wasn't one that will help them with their further education. It was an education NO CHILD should have to experience. Stay positive, just don't stay ignorant.

Inthethickofitblonde

To say "don't stay ignorant" would imply you feel I am ignorant. For heavens sake. If your child had such a rotten experience at school I am glad you were home to greet them everyday when they got home and provide the warmth and safety they need to be able to go back to that cold and cruel HS everyday. Please let them know when they graduate from College and head out into the real world, life is pretty real. People aren't always loving and you may not have everything go the way you plan. In fact, people may call you silly names, even as an adult. So, when someone calls them ignorant they can laugh with their family and not think another thing of it.

chasingsunsets

You really are naive and clueless. You should stop now because you have zero knowledge on the REAL affects of bullying and until you do, you should refrain from anymore of your uneducated assumptions on what is or is not harmful to a child and what happens when children are bullied. And yes, I called you uneducated, in this you are. "Silly names" you are the problem and not the solution.

ClassOf99Mom

I agree, completely!

ClassOf99Mom

I agree with chasingsunsets, not the blonde...

forreal

After watching the TV13 news conference at noon with these girls telling exactly what happened and how they were spoken to on the bus and in the hallway, it's worse than what I thought!!! No one deserves to be treated like that, this ain't the 50's or 60's anymore! I am so glad this is getting blown WIDE OPEN for everyone to see and hear about. And if the school gets penalized and fined, well there goes more of our wasted money down the drain because of covering up this crap...it's time to move away

vanessaA

This racial harassment has clearly been an issue at GHAPS for years and years. WHEN are they going to make a zero tolerance policy? Call anyone anything racist you are EXPELLED. A child (3rd grader) called another 3rd grader the N word at the school I work at. That child was immediately expelled. Get with the program GHAPS.

2nd amendment 4 life

I am not a racist by any means, I have black friends and I am Caucasian. They call each other n**gers all the time, just like we say "hey man what's up". It's just their way of talking to each other. Now I understand, with our nations past history, it's different for a white person to say it to them. But seriously? A 3rd grader? Expelled for saying just the "N" word? Do you honestly thinks he understands the history behind what he just said? And was he saying it to an African-American and did he say it with a malicious motive? I cannot believe a 3rd grader was expelled for saying the "n" word. That is ridiculous.

ClassOf99Mom

"Just the n word"? You have got to be kidding. I think a zero tolerance policy is exactly what all schools need to do! Does it really matter why the 3rd grader used the word, or to whom it was directed at? This students expulsion wasn't ridiculous, you ignorant comment was...

dancingliberal

We all have stop letting a word own us. Stop giving the word so much power.

ClassOf99Mom

And no, others using the N word to each other is completely different than me saying, "hey man, what's up? That excuse is such a joke!"

2nd amendment 4 life

It's true, black people always call eachother nigg*rs....but wait a minute, if this was a black 3rd grader who called a white kid "white trash", there would be no punishment and it would go overlooked. And put it this way, say you are in a different state or in-familiar area and your driving your car, there's no speed limit sign so you go 55, turns out the speed limit was only 35 and you get pulled over and the officer suspends your license, EVEN THOUGH YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU WERE DOING AMYTHING WRONG, it doesn't matter, your license is gone.. Now, would you feel like justice has been served and that you fully deserved that? You politically correct people overflow with ignorance.

vanessaA

"head over to where the grass is greener" spoken like a true Grand Haven racist.

Inthethickofitblonde

Actually, it was spoken by someone who understands that things aren't always as perfect other places as they may seem. Again, I wonder if you would say the things you do if you had to sign your name. If you knew me you would know I am far from a racist and probably have volunteered a significant amount of my time for someone very close to you in the last few years, promoting public schools and a safe environment for both teachers and students. Be careful what you say, being misinformed often comes across as sounding or looking very uneducated.

ClassOf99Mom

I was thinking exactly the same thing vanessaA.... By her saying "head over to where the grass is greener" was she referring to "over the bridge"?

Inthethickofitblonde

Have you not heard the saying "the grass is always greener on the other side"?

ClassOf99Mom

Yes I have... The way you said it could have been interpreted harshly though...

chasingsunsets

I also wondered the same thing Classof99Mom.

Inthethickofitblonde

Nothing personal, unlike your comment. If you are always looking for somewhere better, you may be always looking. That is all. For we all know, when you get to the other side, there are problems there too. Better to tough it out, help the situation and hope for change. I am not a racist- you should be ashamed of yourself to just say that not having any idea who I am.

ClassOf99Mom

No one is denying that there aren't problems everywhere... Most of us here just aren't going to ignore the problems that exist right under our noses and so desperately hope that things could change....

chasingsunsets

Bullying and Racial Intimidation are present throughout the United States, but we live HERE and this is our community, these are our children to protect and our problem to correct. Running away may be your answer, but not mine.

ClassOf99Mom

I will never run away but will work as hard as I can to teach my children to love and respect everyone!

sirhansalot

The GHAPS have done nothing but try to cover there bases in case somthng like happens. They talk a great game but in the end they do nothing different.They have meetings but have no action. Just look at what the girls B-ball team wore on game day as costumes { They played dress up ascowboys and indians with the boys team" If grand haven school had been doing there job the coach of the b-ball teams would have have never let the girls dress up like that, what are they going to do next dress in blackface for the next game

erint

this is disgusting. WAKE UP!!
after countless incidents all over this country happening in schools, why is there ANY tolerance at all?! children take their own lives over this!
bullying by any means, should be grounds for ZERO TOLERANCE.
this 3 day at a time in or out of school suspension is total crap. making them take diversity classes is crap. these are high school students...there is NO excuse, it has been taught, it is in the student handbook, the students AND their parents have signed the codes of conduct contracts. ZERO TOLERANCE -not covering your butts after the fact.
i am ENRAGED over this ONGOING practice of bullying in the grand haven public schools and the pussyfooting around of the school officials who are supposed to uphold their commitment to caring and excellence, and the dedication to success and diversity.
your talk is cheap and your action, even cheaper.

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