A suburban school district in Phoenix, Arizona has come under fire after a photo of students wearing T-shirts that spelled out a racial slur showed up on social media.
Spokeswoman Jill Hanks of the Tempe Union High School District said that the six girls featured in the photo will be punished in accordance with district policies. Three dozen girls of the class of 2016 were wearing single-letter T-shirts for a photo shoot that spelled out "Best*You've*Ever*Seen*Class*Of*2016." Six of the girls broke from the pack to use their T-shirts to spell a racist word and photographed themselves in a bathroom window.
According to the New York Post, someone shared the photo online, where it quickly went viral.
A Phoenix-area civil rights activist, Rev. Jarret Maupin, will meet with the district's superintendent this week. Hanks said that officials are "absolutely outraged and disappointed," and the girls have been suspended for five days.
Khaled Rahman of the Daily Mail writes that an online petition on has begun calling for the students to be expelled and the principal, Christine Barela, to be fired. The petition has garnered more than 30,000 signatures in two days.
Barela sent an email to parents writing:
"We want to make it crystal clear those actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated at Desert Vista. Those actions do not represent who we are as a campus. While we don't discuss individual discipline, we can tell you that in addition, the obvious need for sensitivity training will be addressed."
Ironically, Desert Vista high school had scheduled a sensitivity workshop prior to the T-shirt incident that intends to provide "teens and adults with tools to tear down walls of separation, and inspires participants to live, study and work in an encouraging environment of acceptance of love and respect."
Reportedly, students have rallied to the defense of their school. Ed Mazza, an editor at The Huffington Post, writes that The Desert Vista Black Student Union posted their own photo on social media to assert that the incident does not reflect the school's culture. Additionally, the school's basketball team shared an image featuring white and black team players locking harms with the hashtag #talkitout.
Nonetheless, the school is wrestling with increased tensions in light of the photograph. Footage of a shoving match over the incident emerged, and a black student giving an interview about the incident was interrupted by an annoyed white student. School authorities called in extra police support to stave off the heightened tensions.
The Arizona high school has been catapulted to the forefront of a national discussion about race relations in America. Grey's Anatomy star Jesse Williams took to Twitter to condemn the incident, writing: "Witness the pure joy that hate brings. #HurtingTrulyMakesThemHappy #PostRacial #DesertVisat #LetsAllFeignSurprise." Similarly, sports anchor Tyler Baldwin posted a picture criticizing the whole class.
This incident is perhaps a cautionary tale to high school students prone to doing silly or distasteful things others might see as offensive with little afterthought. In a hyper-connected society controversial images, especially those concerning things like race and sexuality, can no longer float through cyberspace unnoticed.