MARTIN COUNTY — The School Board Wednesday upheld the punishment for six Hidden Oaks Middle School students who posed in a photo spelling out a racial slur. The students each were referred to an alternative school for one year.
Five of the students had appealed their discipline, prompting the 8½-hour hearing with testimony from Hidden Oaks school officials, district staff, a basketball coach and a psychotherapist. Two were represented by attorneys.
Moreover, the students must complete a program designed to foster accountability and behavioral change.
The decision of the board passed 4-1, with member Michael DiTerlizzi dissenting. He wanted the time at an alternative school shortened to a semester instead of a year, he said.
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Tony Anderson, the only Black board member, said the incident hits close to home for him because he is a middle school teacher.
“I forgive them because they’re kids, but they did something really ignorant,” he said.
The photo of the seventh graders on the Hidden Oaks campus began circulating on social media May 16 and received national attention after coverage by CNN and Saturday Night Live. Wednesday's public hearing provided insight into the students' punishment after the school district had declined to release or verify details earlier, citing state and federal privacy laws.
School officials spoke about what led to the discovery of the photo and about some of the disciplinary action that was recommended and issued.
One of the students, McClain Lewis, publicly apologized June 11 during a unity rally hosted by the Martin County NAACP. On Wednesday, he apologized again to the School Board.
"I’m sorry, and I didn’t mean for this to go this far," Lewis said. "I would take full ownership of what we did and the consequences.”
Other involved students have not been publicly identified.
Attorneys William Ponsoldt and Barbara Kibbey each represented another student at the hearing. School Board members reiterated to attorneys and witnesses not to use the students' names when talking about them.
Ponsoldt’s client was suspended for nine days at the end of last school year and referred to an accountability and behavioral program , he said. He asked the board to rescind the student’s additional punishment of a year at Spectrum Academy in East Stuart, adding that it’s “not a suitable fit for him.”
Referral to an alternative school is a Level 3 punishment in the student Code of Student Conduct. Level 4 is the most serious.
Hidden Oaks art teacher Melissa Nelson testified the students made the letters in her sixth-period class over the course of three weeks. Most students created the first initial of their first name or last name but were allowed to do other letters, she said.
Nelson said she was unaware of the students’ plans for the photo, which was taken during three minutes between classes. One student told her he chose the letter “I” in honor of his father's dead dog named Ike.
“I would make very clear that they had planned this, that they lied extensively to cover what they were doing to get what they wanted, which was this photograph,” Nelson said. “I feel like this is a personal affront to me and my career. I’m devastated.”
Popular rap music, Pondsolt said, uses the racial slur spelled in the photo, and that contributed to the students' desensitization to the word. Pondsolt attempted to play songs by rap artists Drake and Lil Wayne as examples, but attorneys for the School Board and Superintendent John Millay objected.
A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, in addition to the Hidden Oaks basketball coach, testified that Pondsolt's client confided in them about the incident.
After the photo was posted online, the student was “withdrawn” and “remorseful” with suicidal thoughts, Gina Eaton, a licensed clinical social worker/psychotherapist, testified.
"I don’t believe that this client really understood the impact of what that word meant in history, in the African-American culture," Eaton said.
This story will be updated.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Racist slur photo at Florida school: Board rejects discipline appeal