TANGLETOWN — Twelve days after disturbing racial incident took place in a Washburn High School hallway, many of the students at a community meeting said they were ready for an apology and then to move on from the controversy that has preoccupied the school.
But many parents and adult community members who spoke during the Jan. 23 meeting said the incident — in which a dark-skinned baby doll was hung from a piece of string and photographed — reflected a lack of understanding of both African American history and the power of the image, which was shared on social media.
“Do you really understand this?” asked community activist Al Flowers when it was his turn at the microphone.
“You must really learn our history,” Flowers continued. “African American history isn’t really taught in school, because it’s the ugliest history in America.”
Washburn High School Principal Carol Markham-Cousins said she was “incensed, outraged, humiliated and angry” when she learned of the Jan. 11 incident, which took place in the afternoon and lasted about 15–20 minutes, according to the district. Students and staff came upon the scene as they passed between classes.
Four students involved in the incident were suspended, but the district, citing data privacy laws, declined to identify them or the specific punishments they face. Markham-Cousins made it clear that their actions were taken seriously.
“It’s racist and it’s wrong,” she said, eliciting a low murmur of affirmations from the crowd.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who joined Markham-Cousins on the auditorium’s stage, said the incident did not reflect the school she knew. Johnson described Washburn as “an inclusive community where students … interact well together.”
Johnson, who grew up in segregated Selma, Ala., said this should be a time when parents talk with their children about the history of race in this country.
Washburn students discussed the incident in a school assembly Wednesday afternoon, and Markham-Cousins said the conversation would continue.
“One of the things I learned is everybody doesn’t know how terrible this image is,” she said.
The fact that Washburn students already had participated in a group discussion may have partly explained the clear generational divide during the community meeting.
“This is a situation that is horrible and yet is one that we can grow stronger,” said Joseph Froehlich, 18, a senior.
Froehlich was one of many students who said he wanted an apology from the four students involved in the incident.
Lily Quist, a Washburn freshman, said the doll depicted in the photos was hers and was taken from the school’s prop room where it was being kept for use in a school play. Quist said she was “heartbroken” when she saw the images, but came to see the incident as a “stupid mistake.”
“I think that the people really didn’t mean to hurt anybody and it was just an ignorant mistake,” she said.
At least one Washburn parent, though, said she was ashamed her son didn’t have a stronger reaction to the photographs, and wondered if she’d done enough to talk with him about the history of race in America.
Markham-Cousins also addressed critics who said she reacted too slowly to the incident. It took place on a Friday, and school staff learned photos of the doll were circulating by the end of the school day. The next day, Markham-Cousins broke her arm.
School staff met the following week, and a letter was sent to parents Jan. 16, but a glitch meant not all families received it. A recorded phone call went out to parents Jan. 17 and a message was posted on the school’s web page.
“That was too late,” Markham-Cousins said.
It was just one of the difficult lessons stemming from the incident.
“What I heard tonight clearly is we need to educate ourselves,” Markham-Cousins said as people filed out of the auditorium. “We need to educate our students and ourselves.”