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

chasingsunsets

erint
A Grand Haven High School student did take his own life about 2 years ago over the bullying he received at the High School, we are already there.

2nd amendment 4 life

There is a difference between opinions and racism. Wearing a mock KKK costume is racist and just dumb, of course you are going to get in trouble. But saying "I wouldn't date a black person because of their hair" is a personal opinion. Saying it directly to a specific person is mean and offensive, but you cannot call that person a racist. The definition of racism is "hatred or intolerance of another race or races". Saying "I wouldn't date a black person because of their hair" is not racist, it's not nice, but not racist. Now wearing a KKK costume, due to the past history of the former clan, is indeed racist and should be dealt with in a school system. As far as the hair thing goes, the kid that said it should only get a slap on the hand. He wasn't being racist.

Bytheshore4

There is no such thing as KKK affiliation at GHHS. Just stupid kids trying to be funny in front of their friends. Neither the school system not Tracy Wilson is at fault, although some of Wilson's comments made were questionable. She just needs to work on her word choice/public affairs. Once again in GH, a bigger deal is made of something than it needs to be. Every time there's an underage party, or some kids throws up a gang sign, or few students show up to a basketball game, or someone tries to be funny in a lunchroom, every single person loses their minds, and the Tribune fuels it. Real racism is not alone and well at GHHS, just a handful of certain punks that need to be put in check.

rajaju

Good Call,look at the last pic on mlive and 13's pic

peaceforall

Why are there not more ethnic teachers working in the GHAPS system?

Inthethickofitblonde

Honestly, if you don't apply, you won't have a chance to get hired. West Michigan doesn't always pay the most because you have the benefit of the Lake, and not all people love the Winter. Why aren't there more caucasians working in Muskegon? Why don't more caucasians play for the NBA? When does this nonsense end?

sirhansalot

Inthethickofitblonde are you for real? " West Michigan doesn't always pay the most because you have the benefit of the Lake, and not all people love the Winter" Come work for me i will give you $1 and the lake will kick in the rest of your pay........good luck

Bytheshore4

Why are there not more minorities living in Grans Haven?^

Bytheshore4

(To begin with)

What_Up

It is irresponsible for a newspaper to release the name of a child who has not been charged with a crime. The freshman that you name in this story has not even been disciplined by the high school, he was interviewed by an administrator because he is under suspicion. Now everyone thinks he is a racist. Unbelievable.

chasingsunsets

Not everyone. The article clearly states that he was found to not have written on the bus windows.

GrandHavenTaxpayers

I agree!

Cat hawk

I wonder how many minorities the tribune has on staff?

vanessaA

The way you said your return to where the grass is greener was a straight up implication that if one does not like the ignorant racist behavior that runs Grand Haven, then one should leave. That is exactly what you meant, whether you are even aware of it.
"Again, I wonder if you would say the things you do if you had to sign your name."
Really? Vanessa A. That is my name, Vanessa Allen.
I am obviously not misinformed. I grew up in Grand Haven, I went to and graduated from Grand Haven schools. If I am "looking uneducated" then clearly GHAPS has academic problems as well, as I graduated with a 4.0.
Honestly, this whole thread surprises me for a 2 reasons, 1- that so many people are speaking up and speaking out and sticking up for the victims of this abuse. I am surprised to see so many people aware of the problem and no longer denying it.
and 2- the blatant ignorant display of white privilege and racism, by professional adults.
The fact that there is no zero tolerance policy is absurd. This racist stuff has been going in at GHAPS for YEARS and YEARS. I have 2 older brothers who experienced exactly the same harassment and countless friends that were bullied because of being different from the wealthy, white Grand Haven elite.
To ask questions about why there are not more caucasians in Muskegon is obvious. It's called gentrification. The original land owners of Ottawa county made a pact to not sell land to non-whites a very long time ago, the history is there, do the research. I am SO tired of always having to defend my disappointment in the ignorance that Grand Haven holds onto so tightly. It is not my job to educate people about their privilege and inherent racism that is pounded into everyone's head their entire lives. EVERYONE is racist! Acknowledging that along with your level of privilege is the first step towards really doing something about it.
There are actually classes to help people with their white guilt and their institutional racist mental program. There are papers and books written about it.
The lakeshore ethnic diversity alliance can help you find resources to that kind of information I am sure.
I can already tell you word for word the backlash that will result from me posting this comment. I am not interested in engaging in any kind of battle about it. I have done my research and education on the subject. I have been racially harassed my entire life, I lived in Portland, OR, Oakland, CA, Colombia, SA and here again in Michigan, and I have never experienced such blatant displays of racism and such ignorant displays of denial and defensiveness, as I do living in West Michigan.
GHAPS has a bullying problem that they are not dealing with the way they should. GHAPS has a racism problem that they are not dealing with the way they should. MAKE IT ZERO TOLERANCE. ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BULLIES AND ZERO TOLERANCE FOR RACISTS. MAKE SCHOOL SAFE FOR EVERYONE.

chasingsunsets

I hope you didn't think my comments were directed at you, they were not. You have had the unfortunate experience to understand the problems in this town first hand. I commend you for speaking out and I applaud you for rising above the hate.

ClassOf99Mom

You continue to amaze me... SOOOO proud of you and all that you stand for! :)

WalmartWolverine

UNBELIVEBLE, totally unbelievable people. Grand Haven does not have a deer problem. Grand Haven does not have a dog problem. Grand Haven has a people problem. Deer and dogs would not let a subject like this spin out of control. The posts here have gone way over the edge. Look at the lengths and the contents. The guys fuel the fire from different angles so the gals can pull each other’s hair out. I got to believe the residents of Muskegon Heights are shaking their heads in disbelief how educated white (nonracist I might add) people, go about solving problems involving race.

Sorry Vanessa no offense, I needed a place to stick this thing.

vanessaA

Go Katie Bridgeforth! You are doing it for all of us that suffered years of racial harassment at GHAPS! I support you!

GrandHavenTaxpayers

Seriously? You cannot figure out how kids are learning racism? When we moved here over two decades ago, the first thing our children heard in the Christian day school they attended was, "Are you Dutch? 'Cause if you a**t Dutch, you a**t much!" Those students had to have heard it from their parents.

opinionscount

Right. What is it with the "dutch" thing around here. We moved here several years ago and find that people are quite stand-off-ish and difficult to get to know. I've been told that it is "If you're not dutch, you aint' much" mentality. What is so special about the dutch? The wooden shoes, maybe? lol

rajaju

Wait a minute............what am I called if I just hate everyone..?????? oh ya I know ...an ***hole....forget I asked ......now I'm hurt

whateveridonteven

I hate everyone equally. Humans suck. Cats are better.

Highlander

E pluribus unum (look it up-it describes the fabric of this country). United We Stand. Divided We Fall. Liberty and Justice for ALL. Any person who is insensitive towards another of a different race is that was from family culture--cough, cough...parenting.

To keep this brief: The idea of making a person of color, making a person who practices another religion- or doesn't, making a person who is "built differently" regarding the sexual orientation, etc feel inferior through oppressive and racist/hateful speech is.....quite frankly....un-American. by definition.

I've lived in this community for over 2 decades. There has always been this underlying hateful/bullying sentiment I hear in certain circles in neighborhoods and church communities around the Tri-Cities (young people, adults/parents, white/blue collar, parents not calling out their children's hate speech). It's not everywhere, it;s not everyone, but it exists in this community, more than we want to admit.

And as the community slowly becomes more diverse (racially and regarding religion) the tri-Cities will need to have to "check itself". One of these days this "progressive" community might want to progress and get with 2013. It's an ugly stain which will not go away with lazy comment like "they're just kids".

E pluribus unem. The Tribune could do some better reporting with an expose, going deeper into this. You'd sell papers. ;)
Look what a respected college did with the same type of issue:
http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/look...

Say No To Tourist's

Since we all know there are bullying and race issues at the Grand Haven Public Schools, that's undeniable. Why don't we as parent or Grandparents take action? Hold an open forum with the school system to fix this, oh that's right we did. Didn't work did it? We need to make this known we mean business! Stop the bullying and racial attacks period! Enforce the zero tolerance policy now! Enforce the dress code and take action, make the ones creating the problem seek mandatory counseling at the parents expense! All this crap needs to stop NOW!

whateveridonteven

I dont see any. lol.

I think that the students are very open and tolerant. So you have a few being stupid and terrible. It happens. They're humans who werent raised properly.

okay.

But 95% of the students are lovely and open and kind and not bullies.

More of the adults in the town are the ones who aren't open to new cultures and ways of life.

PeopleAreAmazing

"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" - MLK. I've read a good share of the comments that have been contributed, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not surprised that we have these types of challenges in our society, let alone our own town. I completely agree that our administration could have done a better job of handling and communicating these issues. If there have been multiple incidents within this school year, it only seems appropriate that some kind of communication with parents would have occurred; however, let be honest: that wouldn't have solved these issues. The people (not just children) who participate in bullying and intimidation, regardless of whether it is racially motivated or not, would not be convinced to change behavior that easily. There are people who've written here that suggest that this proves why we need a racially diverse city. Do you really believe that our story is that much different than "racially diverse" cities? You don't need to read too far into a newspaper to see that racial and ethnic intimidation occurs in every city where cultures, and race combine. I suggest to you that these issues are present exactly because we are becoming more racially diverse, not because we aren't. Before we blame everyone else, let's make sure that we have appropriate expectations. Do we really expect - given the history of race in our society and the efforts that people have taken to both inflict racial intimidation and the effort that people have taken to eliminate it - do we expect our principal to operate a school, where she's working with 2000 individual personalities, and prejudices in a way that makes the issues of our culture disappear into a culture of perfectness? Really? Come on - think. Of course there are people that live in this town, like many other towns across our country, that believe that the color of skin matters. But, the fact is that the majority of people that live here don't see in color. What we should be expecting is that our administration would deal with each and every situation professionally, quickly, fairly and under the law. So, knowing that we have government entities involved "investigating", shouldn't that be enough at this point? Have we seen any result? Have we seen anything formal that provides an official conclusion of the investigation? No? Then let's not throw around accusations and attacks on the people involved until we KNOW. I'll wrap this up - but first - I challenge you........if our town and school district is so racially insensitive, and so closeted, and out of touch, and filled with bigotry and hate - why would the student body in 2011 (overwhelmingly) elect a black Homecoming Queen, and a black Homecoming King? Does that sound like a school that discriminates as a community against those of a different race? It isn't. Our school is a microcosm of our community. Before we start to project our criticism at others who are in the battle every day - we ought to look in the mirror to see who we are, and where are we contributing? If your contribution involves the comments I've seen here, please go back up to the top and start over. MLK has it right - your ignorance and stupidity are more dangerous than any of the people you criticize.

BeKindtoOthers

If the expectation is that all students at Grand Haven Public Schools feel welcome, valued, and accepted, then it only makes sense that the schools and parents need to teach it.

If there is a "zero tolerance" policy for bullying, racial discrimination, and other hateful behaviors, then it needs to be enforced. If there is no "zero tolerance" policy at GHAPS, then administrators including the principal should take the blame for the continuing hate speech and hateful actions that occur.

Saying that "kids will be kids" regarding hateful behaviors is shocking in today's world. Kids need to be trained just like employees need to be trained in the workplace. Hateful behavior in the workplace gets an employee fired. Hateful behavior in a school setting needs very, very strong consequences for the students and the parents as well. If the schools are preparing students for future success in the workplace, then they need to train students to meet the expected behaviors.

And GHAPS will get very serious about this because now that the federal complaint has been filed (if GHAPS had handled the hate behavior correctly, this would never have happened) they will have to show what their plan is to correct the problem. Clearly what GHAPS has been doing has not worked, so they need a better plan.

I read that there were six incidents and the school is investigating. If there are six incidents, then in reality there are many, many more. Students behave the way that they do regarding hateful behavior for many reasons, but ultimately the hateful behaviors that occur inside GHAPS occur because they can.

Students, especially high school students, know exactly what they're saying. And some are opportunists who wait for a student taking a test in the hall to deliver racial intimidation speech. They know that no one is looking, so they cease the opportunity to inflict hate and hurt on a student. And why put a student in the hall to take a test? Who is monitoring the test taking? Nobody.

I believe that Grand Haven can address this hateful situation, find a solution, train students, staff, and parents, and eliminate the hateful behaviors that occur. And the community will be watching.

chasingsunsets

For those that still believe there is no racial hatred in this community, how easy you forget:

http://articles.chicagotribune.c...

BeKindtoOthers

I remember that within the last year, a maintenance worker painting at one of the local apartments complexes experienced a "racial writing of intimidation" to frighten him as he was just trying to do his job. These snapshots of our community keep popping up, and it's time to seriously address them.

I do believe that most residents of Grand Haven condemn the recent hateful behaviors that have come to light. I believe that the community will come together and solve the problem.

MeanSmith

I am a black woman cop. How do you think I am treated??? Answer: like all cops.

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