Bexley City Schools and Columbus Academy administrators say they are investigating an African-American Bexley High School student’s report stating he was harassed and referred to by a racial slur on social media by six white male students.
The student, who is not being identified because he is a minor, said he was tagged in a Snapchat group titled “The George Floyd Brotherhood” in mid-June.
Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a grocery store on May 25. In a video of the encounter, Floyd gasped for breath as officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck while three other officers looked on. All four were eventually criminally charged for their roles in his death, which sparked international protests and dialogues nationwide on race and inequality.
The African-American student said in a July 9 Columbus Alive article the white students first attempted to engage him in small talk on Snapchat.
“And then right after that they started asking me, ‘Yo, is it cool if we use the N-word?’… And I didn’t say anything, and I put my phone down and just went on watching a movie, not looking at my phone because I knew they were going to keep asking me and asking me,” the African-American student said. “About an hour later, I picked up my phone and they were still talking, and this one kid goes, ‘Listen up here, you N-word, I need you to pick up the phone.’ And immediately there I left the group, because I didn’t know how to react. … I was just ignoring it, almost like it was a bad dream.”
The African-American student said he captured screenshots of the conversation and shared them on his own Snapchat account. He said the screenshot generated dozens of comments from friends and classmates. He said he learned the six students from Bexley High School and Columbus Academy in Gahanna had a pattern of inviting individuals into the chat and harassing them with racist, sexist and homophobic slurs.
Bexley City Schools posted a public statement about the Columbus Alive article on its website, bexleyschools.org. According to the statement, when the district was contacted for a response about the “George Floyd Brotherhood” incident, the district requested details from the media outlet about the incident.
“Based upon the description of the incident that was provided, we suspected that the incident occurred during the winter season but had few details,” the district’s statement reads. “We immediately began investigating and found no evidence matching what we were provided.”
Bexley City Schools spokesman Tyler Trill said the district has since expanded its investigation based on details published in the Columbus Alive article and additional information community members provided.
“We cannot comment on the open investigation at this time. We welcome anyone else with additional information on this particular incident or any others to share it with the district,” Trill said. “The Bexley City School District has a strict hazing and bullying policy, which we actively enforce. This includes responding to acts of racism as a violation of our policy. We remain committed to providing a safe and inclusive learning environment for each of our students.”
Erich Hunker, Columbus Academy’s assistant Head of School, development and external relations, said the school is taking disciplinary action against the students involved.
“This was already a severe disciplinary issue being acted upon by the school in mid-June and weeks before the (Columbus Alive) article came out,” Hunker said. “For privacy reasons regarding minors, and especially for the victims, we hope you understand that further details of this matter cannot be shared.”
Neither Bexley City Schools nor Columbus Academy would give specific details about the students involved because they are minors, and they do not comment on the specifics of open investigations.
Both Hunker, Trill and Bexley City Schools board of education members said steps have been taken to combat racism and promote diversity before and since the “George Floyd Brotherhood” incident.
“We have been able to engage with our groups/committees and community to listen, identify needs and work on actions that fight against hate and disrupt systemic racism,” Hunker said.
“While we are working on an enduring plan of action, some immediate initiatives are already happening, including anti-racism work for faculty/staff this summer, hosting anti-racist learning and action groups, integration of division-specific programming that supports healthy identity development and anti-bias skills, curriculum review and changes in several courses, planning for a series of community conversations on race, coordinating a review of student policies and discipline practices in partnership with Upper School students, developing spaces for students to openly discuss racism and report incidents of bias, expansion of our mentoring program for students of color, and planning for anti-bias and allyship training developed by Upper School student leaders,” he said.
Trill said Leisan Smith, an African-American woman who is the district’s director of student and community engagement, is leading the district’s efforts to promote diversity, inclusion and anti-racism with students and staff, including meeting with current and former Bexley students involved with the recently-formed Bexley Anti-Racism Project. This community group is working to combat racial inequality through education, according to its website, bexleyarp.org.
“We value student insight on improving our learning culture and plan to continue the conversation with members of BARP,” Trill said.
Members of the Bexley Anti-Racism Project could not be reached for comment.
Jonathan Baker, president of the Bexley Minority Parents Alliance, which offers support to Bexley students of color and their families, said his organization met with Bexley Anti-Racism Project representatives on July 14 to discuss strategies on how to assist the Bexley City Schools in not only addressing the “George Floyd Brotherhood” incident but in promoting diversity and inclusion.
“We want to coordinate our efforts,” Baker said. “We’d like to provide recommendations to the district on how to move forward. We’re giving them time to get more facts aligned and kind of report back.”
Baker said he and his wife, Courtney, have three daughters who attend Bexley schools and have found the community to be mostly welcoming to people of color and supportive in addressing systemic racism.
“Bexley is a little more progressive on this issue,” he said. “Minorities can feel like they have greater support. Greater support is not 100% support.”
Jonathan Baker is the associate director of instructional advancement at Ohio State University’s Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning. He said he has witnessed firsthand how students of different ethnic backgrounds benefit from seeing African Americans in positions of authority and would like to see more Black professionals at all levels throughout the Bexley City Schools.
“The more we have minorities in leadership positions, in front of the classroom, it’s kind of hard to make derogatory comments about someone in a position of authority that you hold in high esteem,” Baker said. “As long as it’s out of sight out of mind, you feel less compelled to respect them.”
Bexley school board President Marlee Snowdon said the board voted 5-0 on June 29 to issue a public statement about the importance of racial equality:
“The Bexley Board of Education acknowledges the voices and expectations of our community in response to recent events that call on us to confront racism, not only through conversation but also definitive action,” the statement says in part. “We recognize our critical role in shaping and cultivating an educational experience that ensures that each student, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, feels valued, supported, and free. We believe this is essential to any public school environment, and that our work in recent years towards this goal is merely the beginning and not the end of our journey.”
Board members Alissha Mitchell, who is African American, and Victoria Powers said they worked together to craft the statement, with feedback from Snowdon and members John Barno and Michelle Mineo.
“I continue, as my other board colleagues, to be an engaged partner and resource in discussions and work around improving diversity in Bexley,” Mitchell said, “but more importantly, addressing the systemic culture that has shaped our district and community since its inception.
“There are many avenues for change, and as a member of the board, I have pledged to identify specific and direct action that will result in greater equity, inclusion, and racial justice in our district and our community,” Powers said. “I look forward to the work ahead.”
“We’ve put our intentions down on paper - which helps guide the work, the conversations, the goals, the accountability in moving forward,” Mineo said. “The work involves listening, listening even more, asking questions, listening again, reading, having conversations, listening and moving forward.”
Barno said he first became aware of the “George Floyd Brotherhood” issue the night before the Columbus Alive article was published. He said the incident is a “wake-up call” about race relations that goes beyond the school district.
“My reflection on this issue brought me to the conclusion that it will be a very painful ‘ripping off of the Band-Aid’ for this community,” Barno said. “This has to involve honest conversations and actions, and not platitudes or putting up a yard sign. There is lots of work to do from a district perspective, but this has to be a community-wide effort.”
To report tips about the “George Floyd Brotherhood” incident to the Bexley City Schools, visit Bexleyschools.formstack.com/form/incident_report.
Columbus Alive Editor Andy Downing contributed to this story.