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Racist student video leaves Nassau Schools defending their response

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Nassau County School District
Yulee High School Gym

The Nassau County School District, castigated over a racist student video, says it had no authority to discipline two white students who made the video: They were off campus and the school year had not yet begun.

“While schools do have jurisdiction to discipline students for their on-line, off campus behavior under certain circumstances, this case did not meet the criteria,” the school district's assistant superintendent of instruction, Mark Durham, said in an emailed statement this week about the controversy at Yulee High School. “In this case the video took place during the summer prior to the beginning of the school year. The two students in the video were not yet students at YHS.”

The flap began when the students, one in a white hood, created a video in which they laughed and used racial slurs. Another student sent the video out to classmates months later, and a group of students then physically confronted the individual who distributed it.

Only the student who circulated the video and the students involved in the altercation could be punished under the school district's policies, according to the district. But the episode has angered some parents and spotlighted racial divide that civic activists are striving to address.

Parent Matthew Ricks, whose child was suspended for being involved in the confrontation, said the policy isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the school district's response.

“I've seen that policy used as a way to protect them from the decision they made,” Ricks said. “I don't believe that is the only way to apply the policy that I read in the code of conduct.”

The code of conduct includes a clause that says, “The Nassau County School Board may assign more severe consequences than normal when the offender appears motivated by hostility toward the victim’s real or perceived race."

This summer, the U.S. the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a student whose school disciplined her for an explicit Snapchat video she made off campus complaining about the school’s cheerleading program. In the same opinion, though, justices established that schools have the power to police off-campus speech involving harassment, bullying, cheating or disruption of classroom activities.

In 2018, a Texas school district disciplined three students for a viral racist video made after school hours off campus. That same school district disciplined another student this week after another racist video, also made off campus, went viral.

The Nassau County School Board will meet Thursday evening. Ricks, along with other parents, said he plans to ask the School Board for an investigation into the situation and to consider updating the district's policy to more accurately account for kids' use of social media. He said that beyond the policy itself, communication with the students about the video was insufficient.

“This appears to be an issue where the district's position is to protect the white kid and discipline the Black kids. Whether it's true or not is not for me to know,” Ricks said. “But that’s how these kids are seeing it.”

Ricks said he wishes the school had been proactive in physically protecting all the students involved — including the students who created the video and the student who sent it out — and in offering support to the Black students who were sent the racist video.

“There’s been no acknowledgement of the fact that because of the way they handled the situation, it makes the players who were the initial victims — for lack of a better term right now — it makes them feel like the school does not support them because of their race,” Ricks said.

Durham, the district spokesman, said in a statement, “We recognize that many students were negatively affected by the content of this video and the school is prepared to support their needs.”

Another pair of Nassau County parents, who asked to remain anonymous for the student’s safety, told WJCT News that the incident highlights the need for white families to teach their kids about racism to prevent videos like that from being made in the first place.

“As a Black man, I’ve had these conversations with my children,” the father said. “I think the talks need to start happening on the other side”

Nassau County’s population is 85% white, according to the latest census data. Black residents make up less than 6% of the population. The Nassau County Racial Equality Coalition is working to ensure the county’s minority populations are treated equally across all sectors, including education. Nassau County School Superintendent Kathy Burns is on the coalition's board.

Coalition Director Samir Gupte said the group provides unconscious-bias training for a range of governmental organizations, including schools. Superintendent Burns also is working with the Florida Fund For Minority Teachers to recruit more teachers who are members of racial minorities, Gupte said.

“One of the motivators behind getting more Black male teachers into the school system is having them as role models for all students,” Gupte said.

Those efforts also extend outside the school district to county government, city governments and law enforcement.

“We’re encouraging these larger institutions to seek out proactively more minorities or people of color to be in leadership roles,” Gupte said. “It's important for all our residents to see a greater mix of people in decision-making roles.”

The Nassau County School District did not provide details about how it will modify or enhance education about racism on campuses in response to the racist video. The Nassau County School Board meeting is at 6:30 and is set to be livestreamed on the district’s website.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.
Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or Rtroncoso@wjct.org and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.