OPRF suspends student who posted blackface photo

The student and an OPRF teacher have both been suspended after the incident

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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?"

Email: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Jeffrey Smith from Oak Park   

Posted: October 14th, 2017 4:19 PM

Sample of "lecturing": "JG: The problem is that you want to lecture others and virtue signal about race and victimhood. No more."

Jg Morales  

Posted: October 14th, 2017 5:44 AM

Alex- I believe I stated that quite plainly in my post. Did you read it? The problem being that people don't care to understand nor listen? My entire post was about that. Don't care and don't want to care sums it up, no? Was I somehow unclear? Add to that: Some are so thoroughly indignant that they will argue your point at you directly after you've written it, thus providing an active example. ?' Thank you, Alex.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: October 14th, 2017 3:45 AM

JG: The problem is that you want to lecture others and virtue signal about race and victimhood. No more.

Jg Morales  

Posted: October 14th, 2017 2:53 AM

As you can see by the comments, it's not an issue of denial but of lack of concern. Peope don't understand the difference between a sketchy joke and black face, and --most importantly-- they don't care to understand. It's a nonissue so long as their child isn't the next one caught. To the people who need to listen, the problem isn't racism but "whining" about racism. And so long as so many people with such ill informed and self-absorbed attitudes are numerous in our society, no amount of talking will ever put an end to it. Not only do they not care, they don't even want to hear about it. No real conversation can ever occur in those conditions. The people who need to listen simply don't want to. They like it this way. It's more comfortable for them.

Andrea Lee  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 11:08 PM

This is not an aberrant incident but instead a surfacing of the racism that has always existed in American society and in Oak Park, which we like to think is beyond racism. Yes, this was the impulsive move of a teenager. There is also a culture that has signaled permission for racist transgressions to be committed. The students and community harmed by the act should be central to our community's response. And to suspend Anthony Clark is nothing but scapegoating. After we have rectified this incident to the best of our ability, we each need to consider what we will be doing to address the undercurrent of racism in our community that is now much harder to deny.

Cecilia Horodyski  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 10:17 PM

Justice for Anthony Clark and for students of color.

Lisa Hoelscher from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 10:06 PM

As a high school teacher here's what I know about high school kids. They make dumb, insensitive mistakes. Unfortunately, we, as adults, haven't done a very good job schooling them about the vagaries of social media. (Our dereliction of duty is for another post.) Yes, some BLU kids are upset. They should be but I'm sure with time and the help of their peers and the school, healing will occur. Yet, I also would bet serious money that there were a few African American kids at OPRF whose first reaction was to laugh at the Snap. Of course since the adults have rushed to judgment on all sides of this story, none of them would ever admit to having laughed now. How do I know at least a few kids laughed? Because it's human nature and that's what kids do. As for the adults involved, it seems that many are finding axes to grind through this story. How does anyone know the student "targeted" the BLU? If the student's caption was something about the basketball team or spoken word club would the reaction on all parts have been the same? I don't know but I'm asking. Most of the adults on this thread raise some really good points, especially about how the school has now opened itself up to being a pawn in the petty wars between students. I find this thread much more reasoned than the thread following the story about Mr. Clark's suspension.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 9:52 PM

"Clark had been planning to host a meeting between the student and members of BLU at his home.." Teachers should not be communicating on social media directly with students nor invite them to their homes. There will be no loss in instruction value if these rules are followed. Draw a clear rule and enforcement is easy without interpretation.

Krissy Bee  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 9:28 PM

Anthony Clark didn't know the picture was of a student, he posted the pic as an example of racism. When he found the pic was of a student he deleted it. I'm not sure why that breaks the school policy? Honestly, it all sounds like this was handled by the young man and his family in an honest way that addresses the very real harm. Why would we suspend a teacher for handling the situation with poise and to such a positive and beneficial result? We make mistakes; we own them; we learn; we grow. It's a very responsible outcome. I am hoping that Anthony Clarke is reinstated immediately.

Aisha Coleman  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 7:17 PM

When a person target a group solely based on their ethnicity that is what most rational people call a racist act. Have any of you thought for a second how these kids in BLU are dealing with this rasist act against them? Are you not outraged that a group of black kids might be offended by this kids actions? Are you not ashamed that narritave has shifted to this kids privacy and not what he did? Is his privacy more important than BLU kids mental and physical wellbeing? Calling what this young man did a "mistake" is a gross understatement. SHAME

Klara Gabor  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 6:11 PM

The teacher was suspended with pay for violating school policy, in effect a paid vacation courtesy of taxpayers. Is OPRF going to pay for a tutor for the student?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 5:55 PM

Here's an idea to try on. The 17-year old whose admittedly "off-handed joke" racially offended people accepts that's he made a mistake, he accepts his punishment as warranted (my guess is 3 days), and he moves on with his life, a big lesson learned. He seems to be doing just that, unlike some of the adults commenting on the issue.

Brian Souders  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 5:33 PM

So now OPRF will be monitoring every student's social media accounts and suspend every student who makes an impolitic post? And what's to stop another student from screencapping another student's social media post and disseminating it publicly to get them suspended? This seems like a slippery slope to me.

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