Students walk out of Bloomfield Hills High School over racist incidents

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills High School students walked out of school Friday afternoon in protest of the administration's response to racist messages recently plastered on school walls and circulated on social media.

The spate of incidents started with posts initially shared within a private Snapchat group that eventually spread throughout the student body, protesting students said. Racist and violent graffiti then started appearing on the school's walls.

A Bloomfield Township police officer, right, talks with a woman as Associate Principal David Reed-Nordwall forms a perimeter between them and students protesting in front of Bloomfield Hills High School on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Hundreds of students protested over the administration's response to racist graffiti in the building and comments on social media on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

One of the messages on a bathroom wall encouraged killing all Black people, although it used a racial slur to refer to skin color.

About 200 students gathered outside the school's main entrance along Andover Road, where some took turns standing on a concrete pillar to call for stronger action against the "utterly unacceptable" displays of racism. Many held signs and repeated chants calling for racism to be eradicated from the school.

"It's frustrating," said sophomore Asia Hughes, 15, after she stepped away from the crowd. She said the administration has given students behind the graffiti mild punishments in light of the severity of the behavior. 

"I've been in this district since I was in first- or second-grade, and I've been experiencing stuff like this for years," Hughes said. "It's been this kind of nonstop issue. The school barely takes action. The most they'll do is give a suspension. … It's frustrating because we never get what we deserve when it comes to this issue."

Asia Hughes, of Bloomfield Hills, talks to a Detroit News reporter outside a protest outside Bloomfield Hills High School over the administration's response to racist graffiti in the building and comments on social media on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

District officials declined to answer whether students have been disciplined as a result of the graffiti. 

High school administrators became aware of a racist social media post on Monday and of racist hate speech written in a restroom on Wednesday, according to an email from district spokeswoman Karen Huyghe. She said Superintendent Patrick Watson was unavailable for Friday interviews.

Jennifer Matlow, acting president for the district’s Board of Education, released a statement Friday evening. 

“The Board denounces and deplores all expressions of racism and other forms of hatred and intolerance in our community,” Matlow said. “We fully support all of the current and planned efforts of our Superintendent, administration, and teaching staff in addressing these events which are deeply disturbing to all of us who serve in education. Our students always need to feel safe, valued, loved, and cared for when they come to school, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure this is our school environment.”  

The district is hosting a "Community Collaboration Event to move district-wide anti-racism work forward" at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at the high school, Huyghe said. 

"We recognize that we need help from our community and that there is significant work to do." 

Hughes pointed to a pair of letters written by Watson and Principal Charlie Hollerith about the graffiti this week. Though they denounced the graffiti as hate speech, said it would not be tolerated and asked students to come forward, Hughes said the letter failed to acknowledge how serious racism is for Black students.

Bloomfield Hills High School students protest over the administration's response to racist graffiti in the building and comments on social media on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

"The hate speech email was the same as (for) something just, I don't know, like skipping class," she said. "No one really paid it any attention and that is the problem. No one is listening. It takes a whole group of people for someone to listen, and I don't even know if they're listening now, to be honest."

There was security outside the protest from Bloomfield Township police officers and school employees, who initially insisted media members stay clear from school property and the roadway.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, said the hate speech and racist incidents are "extremely troubling." She applauded the students who spoke out.

"All students deserve the right to a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment and should not have to fear for their safety based on the color of their skin," Bayer said. "Already, there is too much division in our nation — and these latest incidents make it clear that we must come together and have hard conversations about respect, tolerance, and the role we all play in creating a better society and community.

Although escalated recently by the graffiti and social media posts, racism is not uncommon in Bloomfield Hills schools, said sophomore Grace Franklin, who is Black. Like her, all of Franklin's older siblings experienced racism in some form when they were students in the mostly White district, she said. 

"I think the only reason they're taking it so seriously now is because it's been so frequent in the past month or so," Franklin said. "I do appreciate their efforts to listen to us and try to get our opinions, although I think they should have done this a long time ago." 

Franklin helped lead the protest Friday.

The students were flanked by supportive parents and former students including Courtney Crider, a 21-year-old who attended Bloomfield Hills schools through 10th grade. She said it was important to support students and show the community that the appearance of violent messages and using racial slurs is serious and should not be considered a joke.

Crider, who is Black, said she experienced racism when she was a student, although it wasn't as acute as the social media posts and graffiti that have occurred recently. 

Former student Courtney Crider, of West Bloomfield, attended the Friday walkout at Bloomfield Hills High School. Crider said it was important to support students and show the community that the appearance of violent messages and using racial slurs is serious and should not be considered a joke.

"When I saw it, it was really disappointing," she said. "It was a little scary, but honestly I wasn't surprised."

As well as hosting the Tuesday meeting, school district officials said they are hosting meetings with students to address the impact and repercussions of hate speech, providing counseling and social work support, meeting and training staff.

"Hate speech and racist behavior will not be tolerated and does not represent our mission as a school or the high standards we hold for our students and ourselves," Huyghe wrote.

District officials said they are working with the Bloomfield Township Police Department to investigate incidents but declined to elaborate on the investigation.

When asked about the investigation of the incidents, Lt. Kurtis Dudek confirmed the department is aware of and looking into "the rumors going on," but declined to describe specifically the nature of the investigation.