The 16-second video snippet on Twitter could have provided a teachable moment about perception, sensitivity and unintended consequences of an innocent but misunderstood action. It captured one St. Petersburg High student cracking a whip playfully at another student’s back during a homecoming week dress-up day. Context is everything, and there was little of it in how Pinellas County School District officials reacted. Or overreacted.
The boys, unidentified, meant nothing more than a joke. But a tweet from someone from a different school suggested a racial motive, that the whip was evocative of slavery. The boys, both white, didn’t intend that, but on social media that didn’t matter. And sadly, school district officials let a tweet get ahead of the truth.
Soon several students were disciplined, though the district won’t say how many, what the penalties were or what exact violations of the student code of conduct occurred. Lawyers got involved, and appeals are under way. While the students’ names are understandably not released, the public should know the details of the alleged code violations and the penalties.
In a world in which too many racially insensitive things still do happen, Maria Scruggs, the president of the NAACP St. Petersburg Branch, came to the boys’ defense, saying that the district saw racial insensitivity where there was none. “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." Other black leaders in St. Petersburg agreed.
By letting social media take the lead, the adults were too quick to judge. Now the boys worry about their reputations, and a school -- whose very reason for being is education -- lost a teachable moment.
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