JACKSON – School district officials are looking to develop a dialogue with students about how to better communicate about important subjects in the wake of a controversial photograph which hit social media outlets on Oct. 13.
The photo seen on various social media sites featured 16 Jackson Liberty High School seniors spelling out “WE R ALL NI**AS” by using lettered shirts while standing side-by-side.
Two students sported paw prints on their shirts, which were used to display the last word, representing a slang version of a derogatory racial slur toward African Americans. The paw prints might represent the schools’ Lions mascot.
The district released a statement saying that “several senior students from Jackson Liberty High School assembled to take a traditional senior class photo on the bleachers of the football field. That photo featured students using letters on their shirt to spell out their class name and their senior motto of “We are Invincible.’’
The statement confirms that after the photo was completed and as students were heading back to class, students began taking various candid photos of themselves, and a group of students assembled on their own so their shirts spelled out a phrase that included an inference to a racially divisive word.
The students in the photo have been described as being from diverse backgrounds. The photograph however angered some of those who viewed it while others defended the students, saying those offended were overreacting to it.
One of the students featured in the photograph was reported to have said being sorry about the incident and that the photograph was taken to express support of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement (BLM). BLM originated in 2012 following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Jackson Liberty High School Principal Maureen Butler said she learned about the intentions of the students involved and that that she did not feel any malice or disrespect was meant by any of the students in the photograph. The high school has around 1,300 students in ninth through 12th grades.
Shortly after the Oct. 13 incident Butler sent a letter to parents noting that “I did want you to know that we remain confident that the spirit of unity, tolerance and respect among our Liberty Lion family is alive and well.”
“In that letter I also explained that when students returned, we would be discussing with the entire school how words and actions can be perceived, and the consequences that can result from them. As we always intended, that is a large part of what we focused on today – talking about how, regardless of what your intentions are, using racially divisive words is offensive and is never acceptable,” Butler said.
Butler’s letter also stated “that we will not discuss the specifics of any student’s discipline, except to explain that the consequences involved are within the guidelines of our student Code of Conduct.”
“Our focus is on using the information and ideas we are gathering in our discussions with students and parents to find ways to better understand the varied thoughts and perspective on this issue. This may take the form of assemblies, activities, small group meetings, facilitated conversations or even bringing in outside agencies or organizations who can help us have productive, meaningful discussions,” Butler said.
Butler said she believes the district has taken the first steps toward relaying to students the importance of “truly understanding the impact of words and actions, including those that have no place in any school or society.”