Racism hits Sherwood

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Adam Yalowitz | 15 years, 10 months ago

Online comments spark controversy

Members of the Board of Education have called on Blair's Diversity Workshop in the aftermath of the October suspension of a Sherwood sophomore for posting racially insensitive comments on her blog that administrators found disruptive to the school environment.

After learning of the incident and reading the student's blog, Board of Education member Valerie Ervin talked to social studies teacher Joann Malone, who teaches a Peace Studies class and sponsors Blair's Diversity Workshop. "Valerie asked if it might be possible for Diversity Workshop to help," said Malone, adding that Diversity Workshop is interested in holding a meeting at Sherwood.

The blog was posted on MySpace, a web site where individuals can write comments and share pictures. A post entitled "Black people at Sherwood, yo" caught the attention of Sherwood administrators (see graphic).

One person posted a comment on the individual's blog. "I totaly agree with this. No, im not rascist I just don't like black people [sic]," the person wrote. The commenter then stated that he or she would like to harm black people.

Sherwood's administration responded because the blog could have disrupted the school, said Sherwood Principal John Yore. "There were several student reports of concern about the blog. Appropriate action was taken," he said. "Students have First Amendment rights, but when something directly impacts our students, [administrators] have to become involved."

Administrators felt that students needed to understand that what they publish online can be read by anyone and can result in disciplinary action, according to Sarah Bisceglie, Sherwood's student body president.

The action taken by Sherwood's administrators would be justified if the comment had been posted at school, said University of California at Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on whether administrators have jurisdiction over off-campus Internet posts.

The Supreme Court's decision in "Tinker v. Des Moines" declared that students have First Amendment rights, but a later ruling in "Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier" stated that school administrators could censor student expression, according to the Freedom Forum's web site. "Some courts say as long as speech affected school, the student can be punished. Other courts have ruled that if the comment was posted off-campus, the student cannot be punished," said Volokh, who concluded that in general, "if the speech is disruptive, the school can discipline."

Taking action

In response to the blog incident, Sherwood administrators organized a forum on racism on Nov. 17. Sherwood Assistant Principal Renee Brimfield also invited Ervin to visit the school and to sit in on the school's "African American Experience" class.

Ervin, one of two black Board of Education members, received a copy of the blog entry when she arrived at the meeting. Ervin said she is unsure whether or not the student should have been disciplined. "It was harsh enough to be considered a hate crime," said Ervin. "These are the kind of issues that need to be put on the table and discussed, because we don't have a clear policy on this."

After the forum, Ervin showed a copy of the blog to Blair senior Sebastian Johnson, the other black board member. Johnson was startled when he first read it and was unsure how to respond to the comments on the web site. "You hear so much about how diverse our county is and how much tolerance we have in our schools. To have something like this, it's really a wake-up call," said Johnson, who has talked to Ervin in the past about visiting schools to talk about race.

Johnson also said that he is unsure whether the school should have punished the student but that removal from Sherwood was necessary because she was receiving death threats from other students. "I'm kind of torn," said Johnson. "It was posted outside school. On the other hand, I understand that if something like this caused enough of a disruption, something would have to be done."

Malone said that she is particularly interested in conducting programs at other area schools because Diversity Workshop no longer fits into the Blair curriculum. She is also concerned that both Diversity Workshop and her Peace Studies course will no longer be offered at Blair because of the new focus on the academies and the increasing emphasis on using class time only for instruction. "It's harder to do the workshops at Blair this year," said Malone. "We are more than eager to do workshops at other schools."

"I really don't understand the black people at Sherwood. They beat people up, get hit by cars, and beat and stab people to death. It is absolutely ridiculous what has become of today's black teenagers. They thrive on violence and think that us crackas owe them something because their ancestors were slaves. They are obnoxious and loud, and I hate them more than anything else almost … Until someone proves me otherwise, I will just continue to believe that they are a race that should basically be sent back to Africa. It is absurd what students at Sherwood do to other innocent people. I'm completely disgusted. I hope they all get what they deserve."

Adam Yalowitz. Adam Yalowitz is just silly. You may find him asking you how much sleep you got last night and then smirking when you say "five hours," because he's always slept less, no matter what. When he does sleep, he dreams of Barack Obama, Tastee Diner … More »

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