ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County school district overreacted last week when it characterized an incident among high school students as “racially insensitive,” say leaders of the NAACP St. Petersburg Branch.
The group contends the district and the school wrongly turned typical teenage horseplay into a spectacle of racism by swiftly disciplining some of the students — ultimately working against the NAACP’s goal of equality and racial understanding.
“While we appreciate the district attempting to exercise racial sensitivity in this matter, we have concluded there was no need to,” St. Petersburg NAACP president Maria Scruggs wrote in a letter to Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego Thursday.
“We are very concerned that this type of overreaction desensitizes the public to the substantive and systemic issues that lead to racist practices and behaviors."
The students, who have not been identified, were involved in the making of a Sept. 30 video that shows a white student, dressed in a white shirt and straw hat to fit the school’s homecoming theme, whipping another white student in the middle of a small crowd on campus as a joke. The student who brought the whip and another student who recorded the video were disciplined, too.
District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason declined to share details about how many students were disciplined, as well as what portion of the student code of conduct they violated and what punishments they received. She said only that all the involved students have appealed their discipline, and that the district deemed their actions to be racially insensitive based on “perception in the community" and concerns shared by a “small number of students.”
As the 16-second video clip circulated on social media Wednesday, the district released a statement that characterized the students’ actions as discriminatory. But Scruggs, as well as other leaders in the city’s black community, saw it differently.
Goliath Davis, who became St. Petersburg’s first black police chief in 1997, said he saw no evidence of racism or racial insensitivity in the video. He watched it online after hearing whispers about the incident around town.
“I was trying to discern where the racism came in,” Davis said, adding that, though a whip could be linked to slavery, it didn’t appear to be in this instance.
He phoned Grego to learn more and was told that the students were disciplined only for disruption, not anything to do with race — even though the district’s statement plainly condemned the incident “racially insensitive."
That discrepancy didn’t sit well with Davis.
“These kids shouldn’t have to live with the fact that they were involved in a racially insensitive incident if they weren’t," he said.
Davis added he’s not one to shy away from calling out racism, “but I didn’t see that here. From what I read, what I inquired and what I was told, nothing suggested that this was a racial incident.”
A similar reaction came from Ric Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, which has long worked with the district to improve racial equity in Pinellas schools.
Any discipline the students receive shouldn’t stay on their records or affect their ability to go to college or get a job, he said. Instead, it should open a dialogue.
“We have to help our children learn the consequences of their behavior, even if they see it differently than others in the community,” Ric Davis said. “That is what I would hope would come of this.”
Scruggs, too, said the ordeal should be used to spur important conversations about race, but noted that it’s important to recognize the cost of false accusations against young people.
“I certainly want to make sure that when we are making these kinds of accusations with children that we are clear on what the impact is when we are wrong,” she said. “We don’t want the public to become desensitized with racism because a lot of it does happen.”
Grego was not available for comment Monday. Area superintendent Pat Wright, however, said the district understands “various perceptions” of the ordeal, including that of the NAACP.
“Perceptions can go either way,” she said. “Opportunities like this give us the chance to grow our community so we can continue to look at different perspectives.”
The NAACP is urging the district to wipe the students’ disciplinary records clean. In her letter, Scruggs offered to visit the school and speak to the principal on their behalf. Wolf-Chason confirmed all the involved students have appealed their discipline and reviews are underway.
As of Monday afternoon, Scruggs had not received a response.
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Read the NAACP’s full letter to the school district:
The St. Petersburg Branch NAACP has had the opportunity to review the video and investigate the circumstances surrounding the video being circulated at St. Petersburg High School. While we appreciate the District attempting to exercise racial sensitivity in this mater we have concluded there was no need to. We simply see white students participating in their high school home coming activities. We understand the delicate balance that public managers have to exercise on a daily basis in a world that is as diverse as ours, however we are very concerned that this type of over reaction desensitizes the public to the substantive and systemic issues that lead to racist practices and behaviors.
On another note a part of the NAACP's mission is the fight for the well being of all people. " It is our hope that the administrators involved in the disciplinary actions of these students for disrupting the normal school day will recognize it was not the students that disrupted the school days it was the adults that reacted to students being students and as a result they disrupted the normal operation of the school.
If it is necessary and with the parents consent I would like to schedule a meeting with the principal responsible for issuing discipline to discuss the potential of rescinding all discipline issued in this matter and allow the situation to serve as a lesson learned for all of us!"