GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Students have organized an event to promote solidarity in the Forest Hills school district after an incident that they say was an act of racism.
On Friday, a Forest Hills Northern High School senior who is white put dark brown makeup on his face in what appeared to be an attempt to make himself look as though he were black. Several photos of the incident were posted online and were quickly shared thousands of times.
Students who were offended by the incident said it was reminiscent of blackface.
Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm said he didn’t believe the incident was racist in nature. He said he believed the student in the pictures simply found a bag of makeup that was left behind by another student and decided to apply the makeup as a joke.
The student wore what appeared to be a basketball jersey and a fake gold chain as well, but Behm said that appeared to be unrelated to the makeup stunt. Other students at Forest Hills Northern told 24 Hour News 8 it wasn’t unusual for the teen in the images to dress in the way seen in the images.
Behm said the intent isn’t significant in the school’s overall response.
“Either way, the response is the same,” he said. “Whether it were intentional or unintentional, the response needs to be the same and this is that we look and we say, ‘How is it that this occurred?’”
Behm said the incident happened in a classroom where a substitute teacher was present. Citing federal student privacy regulations, Behm said he could not discuss how the student was being handled. He did confirm reports that the student had not been back to school since the incident occurred.
Bhem said he was immediately concerned when he was made aware of what happened and anticipated the backlash. He said claims that the student in the images used racial slurs were untrue and that no student witnesses made such claims.
D’kyah Flannel, 16, is a student at Forest Hills Northern and says she saw the student in the photos walk by her in the hallway wearing the makeup. She said she is deeply offended by the display.
“People are trying to justify it and people are trying to tell me and people like me that I’m wrong for feeling the way I feel and that I’m overdoing it,” Flannel told 24 Hour News 8.
Another student, 18-year-old Danielle McMillon, echoed her concerns.
“I was very surprised and I’m very disgusted with the fact that that happened because it shouldn’t have happened at our school or anywhere,” McMillon said.
McMillon and Flannel both question the intent behind the display. They say the fact that the incident occurred on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month, seemed too much of a coincidence. They also spoke of rumors that the student in the photos made derogatory remarks in the past.
Officials with the Grand Rapids branch of the NAACP have become involved in the incident. The organization’s president Cle Jackson said he contacted Behm to discuss the incident.
Several students have organized an event Tuesday during which students are being encouraged to where all black clothing to show their solidarity. Students said they hoped school staff and administrators would also get involved.
Last fall, another incident involving Forest Hills schools caused concerns about racism. Students brought a Betsy Ross 13-star flag to a football game and some saw it as a racist display at a game against a predominantly black school. Bhem apologized following that incident.
Jackson said he and other members of the community planned to express their concerns to the Forest Hills school board at its next meeting.