At Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona, six senior girls decided to diverge from the rest of the students in their class photo by spelling out a racial slur on their T-shirts. The photo they took, which pictured them smiling while forming the N-word, went viral, sparking outrage within the community as well as around the country.
But the punishment they're perceived to have gotten left many dissatisfied with the school’s approach to dealing with racial discrimination and hate speech. Some say the girls should be expelled.
Desert Vista Principal Christine Barela said in a letter to parents that the students’ actions would not be tolerated and that the girls would be punished, although she did not specify how.
“We want to let you know we share your outrage and disappointment over the actions of a handful of students today,” she wrote. But after local news channel KNXV reported that the students had been suspended for only five days -- a claim that the school district denies -- widespread anger was directed at the school for what was seen as a failure to deliver just punishment.
A petition on Change.org, which has attracted 40,000 signatures in three days, calls for the students to be expelled and for Barela to be fired for “allowing a 5-day suspension to be even remotely considered as equal punishment for this hateful display of ignorance and racism,” according to a letter sent to the school district’s Associate Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil.
The anger of the petition’s backers is understandable -- racial slurs alienate the group or community they target and also create a climate of fear and mistrust where learning is difficult. A school can’t carry out its goals -- to educate its students -- if many of those students feel like they are being targeted with racially motivated hate speech. Expelling the students responsible would send a clear message: School authorities don't tolerate discrimination.
The girls’ supporters may see it differently. Although they clearly violated the school’s zero-tolerance policy that denounces such acts of hate speech, they are still, above all, high school students who have not yet matured enough to know the difference between a threatening, discriminatory act and what they see as a harmless prank.
Expulsion would affect the course of the rest of their lives and could also take away a chance for them to learn from their mistakes and take the right course of action in the future.
The students responsible need to be punished -- that much is clear. But the harshness of their punishment, whether suspension or expulsion, will reflect whether one sees their crime as a childish display of insensitivity or a malicious act of racial discrimination.