By Sheryl Estrada
Six girls at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix thought it would be a good idea on Friday to take a group photo with “N-I-*-*-E-R” spelled out in individual gold letters across their Black shirts and post it to social media.
What began Friday with hundreds of high school seniors coming together to take a yearbook photo wearing one-letter or one-symbol T-shirts that spelled out “BEST*YOU’VE*EVER*SEEN*CLASS*OF*2016” morphed into a racist incident when reportedly the girls decided to create the N-word as a joke for one of the girl’s boyfriends, who is Black. A student then posted the photo on Snapchat.
The offensive photo went viral Friday afternoon, even prompting a change.org petition calling for the principal to be fired and students expelled. As of Tuesday more than 40,000 people have signed the petition.
The photo outraged people across the country but not Dr. Cicely Cobb, a former Desert Vista High School teacher.
“When I saw [the photo] I screamed in my house ‘Thank you Jesus,'” she told ABC 15 Arizona on Monday.
That’s because Cobb has been pursuing a lawsuit against the Tempe Union High School District for disregarding complaints she made in 2014 concerning discrimination.
“I had been portrayed in this community as the crazy, angry Black woman who claimed that there were racial issues at Desert Vista High School, but apparently there were not,” Cobb said.
During a civil rights protest on Monday organized by the Rev. Jarrett Maupin outside of the high school, one of the six teens, Rachel (who is the “R” in the photo), addressed the approximately 50 people in attendance.
“I have come here to say that I know people have been offended from what I did, and I’ve come here to say I am incredibly, incredibly sorry,” she said. “I have love for everyone in my heart. I am not a racist, and I am asking everyone for forgiveness.”
All six students and their families were contacted by Maupin, though letters and social media, to attend the protest. Rachel’s family responded.
According to the Arizona Republic, at the same time “protesters geared up outside, many holding posters depicting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and ‘#confrontracism,'” some white men drove by yelling profanities at the crowd and honking their horns.
Tatum Brimley, a Black student who is a senior and a varsity basketball player, said the protest is necessary.
“They don’t think they have to face the consequences, which is why this has to happen,” said Brimley.
The school’s Black Student Union sent a tweet Friday, which said, “The incident that occurred today at Desert Vista High School does not reflect the beliefs of the student body,” and included a photo of diverse students standing with a sign: “#thunderstrong.”
Ahwatukee Foothills of Phoenix
Desert Vista High School has 3,014 students of which66 percent are white and 7 percent Black. It is located in the Ahwatukee Foothills neighborhood of Phoenix, which is 35.854 square miles and about 20 minutes from downtown. With few access points, it has been referred to as the “world’s largest cul-de-sac.”
According to 2010 census data the population is 80 percent white, 12.4 percent Latino, 5.4 percent Black, 6.1 percent Asian and 1.6 percent American Indian. The median household income is $87,575.
In September, along a two-block stretch, some residents of Ahwatukee woke up to find racist slurs and symbols printed on their property, including hate speech toward Mexicans and swastika symbols on several walls, mailboxes and even cars.
“It was racial,” a resident whose property was vandalized said in an interview. “It said F*** Y** Mexicans.”
“I think this is possibly some kid who heard his parents talking,” said another resident who found slander on his truck. “It’s always that racism is passed down to the generations. It’s horrible.”
Perhaps that is the case for the privileged teens that live in a segregated suburbia and thought forming an offensive word wrapped in a legacy of lynching and hate is just fine.
They also live in the state of Arizona where John Huppenthal, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction from 20112015, had been anonymously posting racist comments on a blog for years.
Arizona’s anti-immigration sheriff Joe Arpaio endorsed Donald Trump for president on Tuesday. Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, has long been a staunch opponent of undocumented immigrants. In 2013 a U.S. district judge, Murray Snow, ruled he had racially profiled Latinosin immigration sweeps, during which time he even arrested a six-year-old. And Trump’s stance on immigration has been made clear through his divisive language and proposal to build a wall at the southern border.
In Arizona, land sacred to the Apache tribe for generations is being taken away through the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act passed in 2015. The state also struggledwith whether to declare Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday.
Regarding the official discipline of the six Desert Vista High teenagers, Jill Hanks, executive director of community relations for Tempe Union High School District, said, “We are absolutely aware and outraged by this behavior. The students will be disciplined in accordance with district policy and while we don’t discuss specific discipline I can tell you that will be addressing the obvious need for sensitivity training in this case.”
The teensare on school suspension as they go through the disciplinary process.The school began a campaign on Monday to “spread the word about the N-word.”
“It seems quite elementary considering how horrific of an event transpired at their school,” Cobb said. “It makes Ahwatukee look like a joke.”