Students from 2 schools posted about killing black people. Should they be punished?

Some North Carolina high school students are being punished for talking online about killing black people, but others are apparently not being disciplined for their racist remarks.

Cenayia Edwards, 14, a freshman at East Wake High School in Wendell, exposed a group chat where two students at her school and five students at Corinth Holders High School in Johnston County made racial slurs and talked about shooting black people. Edwards and her family say East Wake High Principal Stacey Alston told them he’s not disciplining any of the school’s students.

“It’s extremely egregious and troubling that the language of killing black babies and shooting black people from students is not taken seriously from school administration,” community activist Kerwin Pittman said at a news conference Thursday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens in Raleigh.

The family says that the students should at a minimum be suspended from school and receive counseling.

Wake County school officials said Thursday that they take the incident seriously but can’t discuss whether disciplinary action had been taken because of federal student privacy laws. But the district has in the past publicly said when disciplinary action has been taken against students for making racially tinged statements on and off campus.

In contrast, Johnston County school officials said Thursday that the principal of Corinth Holders High immediately investigated, involved parents and “issued consequences.” Nathanael Shelton, a district spokesman, said he could not discuss specifics because the disciplinary information is confidential.

In a message sent Tuesday to the school’s families, Alston condemned the statements but stopped short of saying whether he took action against the East Wake High students. He echoed his remarks in a video posted online Thursday.

“I am reaching out to you today to state in no uncertain terms that this behavior is not acceptable in our school community, either during or after school hours,” said Alston, who is African American. “Comments of this nature do not reflect our values. Moreover, they are damaging to both our school and our society as a whole.”

Cenayia said in late September she had been told by some white friends about disturbing comments made by students on a group chat. She decided to investigate by changing her avatar to a white face to gain access to the chat.

The chat included comments such as “#BringSlaveryBack” and about killing black babies and “pulling triggers and shooting” black people. The comments repeatedly used the N-word.

At least some of the chats took place during school hours because there’s a reference to “the teacher is getting mad” in one comment.

Cecelia Edwards, Cenayia’s mother, said that when her daughter complained on the chat, the response was to post an image of a penguin holding a gun along with the words “shut up” and the N-word. That’s when Cenayia asked her family to contact the school for help.

Now the family says they’re worried for Cenayia’s safety.

“This is a threat to a whole community of people, not just to one person,” said Corderro Edwards, Cenayia’s father. “For Wake County to not move and take action on this, it is not acceptable.”

Cecelia Edwards said the family questioned why no suspensions were issued. She said the school told them that an investigation determined the students hadn’t violated any school district policies.

In the past, Wake principals have cited how racially charged remarks created a significant disruption on the school environment. It’s been used to discipline three Leesville Road Middle School students for chanting “KKK, KKK” on a video and for disciplining an Apex Friendship High School student for a Snapchat post that compared members of the school’s step team to freed slaves.

In the aftermath of this incident, Alston said East Wake High “will be offering opportunities for constructive dialogue among our students, staff and families about racial issues.”

“These discussions have the potential to be difficult and emotional,” Alston said. “But I am confident that we at East Wake High School have the maturity, the wisdom and, most importantly, the strength of character to engage in these conversations with one another thoughtfully and amicably.”

The proposed discussions didn’t satisfy the family, which said that Alston was only trying to placate them. It’s left Cenayia feeling disillusioned about the school.

“I believed in my school to take the right actions toward this, but it was evident that they did not,” Cenayia said. “This situation has definitely hurt me and opened my eyes to a lot of things. But it hasn’t broken me or developed any kind of hatreds toward Caucasians.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.