A 17-year-old Oak Park and River Forest High School senior who posted a photo showing him in blackface to his Snapchat account on Sunday has been suspended. His parents confirmed the disciplinary action on Thursday. They declined to say how long he’s been suspended and said that they’ve read statements online threatening physical harm to the student.
When reached by phone, Karin Sullivan, the District 200 communications director, said that the district would not comment on the matter, citing student privacy concerns.
“Vote me for BLU president,” reads the caption above the picture of the student in blackface. Underneath that statement he wrote, “For those who don’t know BLU is Black Leaders Union,” and inserted an emoji depicting a neutral face beside the bottom caption.
Within a few hours, the student had removed the offensive post, replacing it with an apology, but by Monday a screenshot of the photo with the words, ‘hi racism!’ scrawled in neon green digital handwriting scrolling across the bottom had been shared many times.
In an interview with Wednesday Journal on Monday, the student apologized for the post, saying that he was exfoliating with a black charcoal face mask at a friend’s house when he posted the photo “as an off-handed joke.”
“I want to make sure that everyone knows how I feel, that I’m very regretful and would love to learn from this experience,” the student said, adding that he doesn’t consider himself a victim. “People’s anger is justified. I did not check my white privilege. I did not think about what I posted. There’s no excuse. I did this and I take responsibility for my actions.”
Anthony Clark, an OPRF teacher and local activist who knows the student and said that he was trying to mitigate the situation, uploaded the photo to Facebook earlier this week. Clark said that at the time he didn’t know who the person in the photo was, but after learning the student’s identity and meeting with the student, he decided to remove the photo.
Clark had been planning to host a meeting between the student and members of BLU at his home on Wednesday, but the teacher said he had to call off the meeting after he was suspended with pay.
District officials declined to confirm or deny Clark’s suspension, since it is against school policy to discuss personnel matters, but in a statement released Tuesday, District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that the district is “deeply concerned not only about the harm done by the original post but also about the current level of disruption to the educational environment being created by subsequent social media posts related to the incident.
“As a district, our priority is the well-being of our students. We have an obligation to provide an education for them in an environment where they feel safe, valued, and heard. The current level of discourse is negatively affecting the school learning environment as well as posing safety concerns for our students. We are taking measures to reduce the harm while we investigate this incident.”
The school district’s faculty policy, which can be accessed online, explains that “social media may not be used to share, publish or transmit information about or images of students and/or district employees without proper approval.”
The policy also contains language similar to Pruitt-Adams’ Tuesday statement. The policy states that employee use of social media shall “not interfere with or disrupt the educational or working environment, or the delivery of education or educational support services.”
After learning of Clark’s suspension on Wednesday, the mother of the 17-year-old — who earlier this week said he has marched with Clark and described himself as a supporter of LGBTQ rights and racial justice — released a statement in support of the teacher.
The mother said that Clark “has supported our student and our family during a very difficult time. On his own time, not as a representative of the school, but as a fellow member of the community, he has worked hard to foster communication and understanding, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable.”
Many of Clark’s supporters, including members of Suburban Unity Alliance, the nonprofit he founded last year to combat local racism, posted supportive statements on Facebook.
Some of Clark’s supporters decried what they considered to be the divisiveness that the incident provoked and that fact that the voices of those most injured by the student’s actions, particularly members of BLU, were being drowned out.
“If Anthony is not vilifying the student and giving the student a chance to get in front of this, if the student and mother are not vilifying Anthony and support SUA’s actions […] why is the community so divisive?” wrote Amy Renzulli, the founder of School of Rock, of which the teenager was a member. “Why is the community either attacking the student or Anthony, while forgetting about those who need the support the most?”