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.
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.
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.”