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For Colorado students, becoming “anti-racist” starts with no longer letting offensive social media posts slide

Racist photos and videos have circulated among young people in Fort Collins and Monument, resulting in a flood of emails to school districts and demands for change

Gessica Getto, 17, Jaeda Rodriguez, 18, and Jordyn Rodriguez, 10, participate in a protest against police brutality in Old Town Fort Collins on Friday, June 5, 2020.(Valerie Mosley/Special to the Colorado Sun)
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The video of a white high school student saying the n-word after pretending to choke his buddy is now known among Fort Collins youth as the “chokehold video.”

It spread like fire via Snapchat and Instagram — just like a photo a few weeks earlier of another white Fort Collins student who kneeled on the neck of a black calf, a cow the boy called “George” in the caption.  

About 115 miles south, in Monument, a Facebook vacation photo posted on the school board president’s page showing young people giving a Nazi salute has caused an uproar in the small, conservative town. 

Condemnation of the social media posts was swift and fierce, including demands for students’ expulsion from school, a student-led protest, a petition to dismiss the superintendent of Poudre School District and, in Monument, calls for the school board president to resign. For the youth leading the charge, the relentless demand for change and continued emails to school and community officials have marked their switch from being not just “not racist,” but anti-racist. 

The youth-led activism comes in the weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, and as Colorado and the rest of the country protests the death of another Black man, Elijah McClain, who died after Aurora police placed him in a carotid hold.

“In order to be anti-racist you have to be actively participating in events and working against problems,” said Elizabeth Elias, who is white, 17 and going into her senior year at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins. “If you are neutral in this, if you don’t take a stand, … overall it can have a waterfall impact.”

MORE: Training white people in Colorado to be “anti-racist” (not just “not racist”) is one step in the fight to correct historic wrongs

Elias immediately sent a message to her high school asking officials to review the Instagram account of another Fort Collins student after she saw the photo of the student kneeling on the neck of a black calf. The district should improve its curriculum to make sure students are educated about racism and racial oppression before they graduate, she said.

“They are just so completely ignorant that they don’t see it as a problem or how it affects their peers,” she said. “That ignorance, if left unchecked, will turn into hatred.”

The Fort Collins posts were quickly attacked as racist by peers on social media and both were removed soon after, although they have continued to circulate for weeks thanks to screenshots by others.

Another Fort Collins student, Anoushka Sarma, who is 17 and Asian Indian, said the recent Black Lives Matter protests have inspired her not just to join others marching the streets in Denver but to take action in her own community. Strangers have told her to “go back to your country” despite the fact she was born at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, and peers — even friends — have made jokes that she smells like curry and that the reason she’s good at math is because she’s Indian.

Sarma, along with five other Fossil Ridge students, organized a rally in early July that was attended by about 200 people. She spoke out against racism and the group of students presented a list of demands for the district. 

“I definitely feel like I’m empowered,” Sarma said. “I want to speak up about my experiences, and I know it’s the right thing to do. I’m losing a lot of friends because I am speaking out. It’s hard to do the right thing.

“We’ve all had enough.” 

The chokehold video rattled Sarma the most because she has gone to school with the boys in the video for years. It made her and other students of color feel unsafe, she said. 

DENVER, CO – JUNE 7: Denver Public School students attend a Black Lives Matter demonstration organized by DPS Board Members to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Civic Center Park, Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another video — one taken months ago and quickly removed from social media soon after — began circulating again among Fort Collins teens in recent weeks because someone had recorded the original post. It shows four white students riding in a car while rapping to a song and using the n-word. 

One widely shared copy of the video included this comment:: “Email PSD. Email Fossil. Don’t let them get away with this.”

After being called out in social media posts, some of the students in the rapping video have apologized to Sarma and others, she said. 

A change.org petition with about 2,000 signatures asks for the resignation of Poudre Schools Superintendent Sandra Smyser, accusing her of supporting a culture where “students of color are not welcome or valued.” Other posts and emails to the district asked for the expulsion of the student in the calf photo.

The Poudre Schools superintendent, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request from The Colorado Sun and the district said no one was available to talk about the district’s role in monitoring or taking action against students because of their social media accounts. District officials said they cannot say, because of student privacy, whether any of the students involved in the posts were disciplined. A copy of the district’s code of conduct says the district can suspend or expel students for conduct off school grounds. 

In an open letter to the community earlier this month, Smyser outlined a list of changes the district would make, including creating a “student equity coalition” that would receive training in anti-bias practices and restorative justice. Experts have recommended that schools develop restorative justice policies so that after racist incidents, students who said or posted discriminatory comments would have to sit and listen to those who were affected — a middle ground between no consequences and expulsion. 

MORE: Denver’s Black students are raising their voices to redesign the curriculum, ensure their history is taught

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The district also announced it would begin diversity and inclusion training for staff in August, and that it will enhance its curriculum to incorporate more history of Black and Indigenous communities and people of color. 

“Our silence should not be mistaken as an endorsement and/or support of any discriminatory action in our community or our schools,” Smyser wrote. “This type of act is not tolerated.”

In Monument, a family member of school board President Matthew Clawson posted to Clawson’s profile a vacation photo showing a group of white children and teenagers wearing fake black mustaches. Two of the teenagers in the photo were making the Nazi salute, raising an arm above their heads.

In an apology posted to his Facebook page and the Lewis-Palmer School District 38 website, Clawson said “the photo was taken in children’s play and without awareness” although it “was nonetheless inappropriate and offensive.” He said he deleted the photo. 

The photo showing two teenagers making a Nazi salute that was posted to Matthew Clawson’s Facebook page. The faces of minors were blurred by editors of the student new organization. (Provided by The Bear Truth)

Students and parents on social media have called for Clawson to resign, and an online petition asking for him to be removed from the board had nearly 1,200 signatures when this story was published. 

District 38 posted Clawson’s apology on its website and social media channels. The district, however, says Clawson’s original post was not on a district channel and that it does not control what teachers and staff post on their social media. 

“He’s a volunteer and he’s elected,” District 38 spokeswoman Julie Stephen said. “The community chose him.”

The district, which is 84% white, does keep tabs on students’ social media posts to monitor potential bullying issues and check in on students’ mental health, Stephen said. Students reached out to the school district on social media and by emailing the school board.

“I was extremely impressed that they used their voice and that they took it to the school board,” Stephen said.

Lewis-Palmer High School student Ella Savage wrote on Instagram that she was “appalled but sadly not surprised” by the picture and asked for Clawson to resign. 

Amber Wright, a rising junior at Palmer Ridge High School and the co-editor of The Bear Truth, the school’s news magazine and website, wrote an article about the Clawson post. She said she “knew this would be an important story” as soon as she heard about it, particularly in the midst of the reckoning on racial injustice sweeping the country. 

“Community members won’t soon forget this because it’s such a blatant act of racism in our community,” Wright said in an interview. 

Racially insensitive social media posts have led to calls for the resignation of another school board member elsewhere in the state. Parents are asking Twin Peaks Charter Academy board member Michelle Kieser to resign after she suggested on Facebook that the video of police officers killing George Floyd was fake. 

“I don’t even know if I believe the video circulating that caused the riots. Too many off things about it and it doesn’t add up,” Kieser wrote in a since-deleted post, according to The Longmont Times-Call

The Boulder chapter of the NAACP has called on Kieser to resign

Regan Byrd, a Denver anti-oppression consultant who trains adults and children, said schools need to make their curriculum more robust so that students learn about racial oppression. Students also should have “more ownership in policies that impact them,” she said, noting that a core principle in fighting oppression is that people who are impacted have a stake in the conversation. 

“Middle school and high school students are ready for complicated conversations about how racial oppression works,” she said. “High schoolers need to push back” and tell administrators, “This is harming myself and other students.”

Activist and speaker Regan Byrd leads an anti-racism training event held at Pine Street Church in Boulder, Colorado on October 19, 2019. The training, titled “Embracing Anti-Racism”, seeks to educate participants in ways to actively combat racism. (Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Byrd recommends restorative justice programs within schools to deal with racist incidents and cultural insensitivity, and said high schools should require students to attend a code-of-conduct training as part of freshman orientation that includes discrimination and diversity training. 

“Then hold students accountable to that code of conduct,” she said. “When somebody says, ‘I saw this on someone’s Instagram post, … what is the way we are going to resolve that?’ Maybe it’s not even about punishment.” 

Instead, school leaders could say, “You are going to sit and listen to the students who were upset about the post,” Byrd suggested. “The school has a different role to play. The students say, ‘I don’t want to be around this person.’ The school says, ‘We get that. What would make you feel safe again? What would make you trust this school community again?’”

Byrd said it makes sense that young people are some of the loudest voices in the Black Lives Matter movement and that in some towns, high schools are ground zero for change. “Young people are trying to figure out what their role in the world is,” she said. “You start realizing stuff is broken and not working and that adults pretend they know what they’re doing and they don’t. That’s kind of jarring.” 

But while Byrd said she has been impressed by white students who have acted as anti-racist allies, she is “reserving judgment” on whether recent protests against police brutality and racism will have long-lasting impact, even among young people.

“I don’t have enough evidence,” she said. “We have been here in the past several times, and that energy fades after about six months or after about a year. For anti-racism to actually happen, people have to have a sustained effort for a long time. I’m very worried that it’s merely another explosion of energy.”

Evan Curran, another Fort Collins student who now considers himself an anti-racist ally, said he has never been a racist person but, up until a year ago, did not take action agaisnt other people’s racism. He changed after hearing what happened to McClain, who was killed by Aurora police while walking home in 2019. 

“I think for a while I was not racist, but I didn’t care that much because the problem didn’t really affect me,” the 17-year-old said. When he read about McClain, Curran said, he realized “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

He began calling out friends — on social media and to their face — who used the n-word or homophobic slurs. “That is when I changed from being non-racist to anti-racist,” Curran said. 

One close friend who used those words “as a joke” no longer does, after Curran questioned him about whether he knew their meaning and what they represented. 

In the past few weeks, Curran has written multiple letters to the school district, the Fossil Ridge principal and the faculty leader of National Honors Society, a club to which some of the students in the videos belonged. Still, he said he believes the way forward is to educate those students, not to berate and embarrass them by calling them out by name at the student protest or by threatening them — as some have done — on social media. 

“I don’t believe in cancel culture,” Curran said. “I don’t think that’s the way to go. We are trying to focus on reforming the education system.”

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