Virginia high school banner groups students of color to make dark outline of logo

Elisha Fieldstadt

A banner at a Virginia high school intended to celebrate 2020's graduating class is being called racist after students noticed that seniors of color were grouped to create the dark outline of the school's logo.

"They really used us as the shading? Cmon now," Yorktown High School senior Yoni Yohanness wrote in an Instagram story with a photo of the banner that was hung outside the school's football field. Students of color are clearly clustered to create the school's elaborate Y logo.

The overlaid logo portion of the banner "masked the faces of many students including myself," Yohanness told NBC News.

Senior Joseph Ramos, a co-editor with the Arlington school's student paper, tweeted about the banner Wednesday, saying his photos were from May 15. "The banner also does not include all members of the class, but repeats the photos of certain students," Ramos noted.

A banner honoring the senior class of Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., ordered by the administration. (Yoni Yohannes)

Later that day, Yorktown's principal, Kevin Clark, tweeted that the banner had been taken down.

"While we did not create this banner, we did review it and did not recognize that the background photo unintentionally grouped students by colors in their photos. Therefore, it appears that our students of color seem to make up the darker areas of the photo. Upon realizing our oversight, we immediately removed the banner and notified the printing company of this issue," Clark said in a statement.

"This banner does not appropriately reflect our graduating class or our values, and we sincerely apologize to any student who felt offended or marginalized. We do not condone any activity or imagery that offends our students," the statement said.

Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia added that "a computer program grouped and placed senior portraits over an image of the front of the school and the YHS logo."

"The printer sent a proof to the school by email, so it was difficult to see how the photos were placed to create the image," Bellavia told NBC News.

"We are having the banner remade as it was intended which was to group students by name," he added.

Following responses from school officials, Arne Duncan, the former United States secretary of education and the author of "How Schools Work," was still pained by the apparent oversight.

"We lived in Arlington, VA for 7 years. 10 minutes from Yorktown HS. This one really hurts," he tweeted.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also was not entirely satisfied with school officials' explanations.

“Given the current racially-charged atmosphere stoked by top national figures — and the current health crisis — it is critical that actions are taken to ensure that these types of ‘mishaps’ do not occur,” said CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper.

Earlier this month, the school had made national headlines for a positive reason when photographer Matt Mendelsohn set out to photograph every senior for a series project called "Not Forgotten: The Yorktown Seniors of 2020," as they missed out on graduation rites of passage because of the coronavirus.

Of Arlington school district's seven high schools, Yorktown is the least diverse. About 66 percent of the student population is white, while 14 percent of the students are Hispanic and 6 percent are black.

But Yohanness said he feels "Yorktown high school is not a racist school."

"From my four years of attending, the Yorktown staff has always been positive and supportive to me," he said.