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Education

Traverse City students behind racist social media group chat won't be criminally charged

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Updated Thursday May 6, 2021, at 3:31 p.m.  

Traverse City students who participated in a racist social media group chat won’t be criminally charged.

In late April, local authorities began investigating a Snapchat group titled “slave trade.” That’s where some high school students in Traverse City pretended to place bids on people of color, including their classmates. 

On Wednesday, Grand Traverse County prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg announced the end of their investigation. They found that the offending students didn’t violate any laws. 

Moeggenberg says because the teens didn’t want anyone else to see the chat, their speech is protected by the first amendment.

“It’s certainly speech we don't approve of, and really, frankly, shocking, but it's protected speech in a private group. Any of the criminal statutes, they have to show intent to either cause fear, to make someone feel threatened, intimidated, things like that. And it just wasn't there,” she said.

The prosecutor’s office is referring the students to a juvenile justice diversion program for counseling and empathy training.

Original post, April 27, 2021:

Concerned residents and parents spoke out against racism and harassment Up North during a Traverse City school board meeting Monday night.

The agenda was dominated by allegations of racist behavior among high school students in Traverse City Area Public Schools. On April 23 the district announced that some were sharing slavery-themed pictures of students of color with price tags on the social media app Snapchat. This follows a trend that’s popped up in other schools across the country.

The messages sent by Traverse City students also included threats against Black students and urged for another Holocaust. A student eventually reported the chat to school officials.

“I want this community to be a better and safer place for anyone and everyone,” said 15-year-old student Nevaeh Wharton, who was targeted by some of the messages. “I feel like the first step to making this community better is talking about [racism] more.”

Northern Michigan E3, a local activist group, asked residents to write-in to the school board and as of Tuesday, got over 500 signatures on a letter calling for action.

Most speakers at the meeting also asked the district to severely punish the guilty parties to the full extent of the law and board policy, something the district superintendent has echoed. In a statement to parents, the district previously called the Snapchat incident “inappropriate,” but several speakers said that didn’t go far enough.

“We are calling for you to call this what it is, this isn’t just a disheartening endeavor” Brett Sinclair said. “This is addressing hate speech and hate crimes.”

After public comment, TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner harshly condemned the messages.

“A racist and anti-Semitic and discriminatory ‘slave trade’ Snapchat was circulated,” he said, adding that the district is taking steps to promote racial equity.

The meeting also served as a forum on racism in the region, with several parents taking the mic to recount stories of harassment they — or their children in TCAPS — experienced.

“I have three other kids, I’ve seen them bullied through the TCAPS system, I’ve dealt with [this] before,” said Jala Sue, Nevaeh Wharton’s mother.

“We as northern Michigan residents need to look into the mirror and ask ourselves why our youth are doing these kinds of actions.” said Marshall Collins Jr., of Northwest Education Services.

The district’s investigation into the Snapchat messages, which includes the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office, is ongoing.

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