, Gloucester, MA

May 2, 2012

Schools wrestle with students' racist 'tweets'

By Steven Fletcher
Staff Writer

A week after a national broadside of racist epithets broke out on targeting one of hockey's few black players, Gloucester school officials are still grappling with what — if anything — to do about GHS student-athletes and other local teens who spewed public racist comments across the Internet.

The Gloucester School District, Superintendent Richard Safier had said, had received word that students had been part of the incident, and he vowed to conduct a full investigation and implement an educational component that looked at the "moral, social and legal aspects of the remarks."

The district's investigation, he said, would consider whether disciplinary action would be warranted, and whether the schools have jurisdiction over the incident at all. As of late Monday, there had been no apparent athletic suspensions or other actions reported. At least one of the confirmed "Tweeters," however, continued to represent Gloucester High in its baseball game Monday against Peabody.

School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said Tuesday the schools' jurisdiction in this case isn't entirely clear. It's something that district policy doesn't cover, he said. He added that this issue is not as clearly defined for potential action as if students and student athletes were breaking a law — as in underage drinking.

The School Committee, he said, is in the process of working on a social media policy for students, but doesn't yet have it fully formed.

"We're in the process of doing policies around social networks," he said.

Pope said he didn't know what the school district plans to do about the incident, saying it is entirely an administrative matter. Safier did not return calls seeking comment on this story Tuesday.

The school's Internet policy covers online use on school grounds with appropriate instructor supervision. The policy prohibits cyber bullying, or use of profane, vulgar, threatening, defamatory, abusive, discriminatory, harassing or otherwise objectionable or criminal language "in a public or private message." It also prohibits use of social networking sites and chatrooms on the school's network.

In a separate policy governing afterschool activities, however, students eligible to participate have to be "in good standing academically and socially, attend school on the day in question, and have paid any applicable participation fee."

Students found violating any school policies will be subject to disciplinary action, according to school policies. The degree of discipline will be determined by the degree, frequency and circumstances surrounding each incident.

The barrage of racist Twitter comments lit up the Internet a week ago tonight, minutes after the Washington Capitals' Joel Ward, who was born in Canada but whose parents hail from Barbados, scored the Game 7 overtime goal that killed the Boston Bruins' hopes of defending the Stanley Cup.

Amid thousands of slurs and obscenities that sparked outrage nationwide were Twitter comments posted by at least five Gloucester High School students, including at least three GHS student-athletes.

According to tweets sent to and later identified by the Times, Gloucester students using the twitter handles GeraldHart635, Glidden24, OwenParisi, and Ryan_Smith11 sent out a number of racist comments targeting Ward's skin color.

Comments on Twitter are different from text messages, which can be private and sent to individual phones or other devices. Anything posted on Twitter is public, and available for viewing and/or response by anyone on the site.

The GeraldHart account is not in any way affiliated with assistant coach Gerald Hart, and the accounts have all been taken down, the Times has confirmed.

But among the "tweets" posted by Gloucester High students were:

From a devin_@GeraldHart635: "Of all the people to score, it had to be the N —." The post used the full word, not dashes.

From the same poster at GeraldHart635, and retweeted by Glidden24, also of Gloucester: "The only thing that is black and should be aloud (sic) in a rink, is the puck ... that's it."

The Devin_GeraldHart635 user also posted a message the next day, before shutting the account down, apologizing for the remarks. The apology came after he had been bombarded by a litany of outraged, online respondents.

"Dear Followers and Twitter World," he wrote. "I am very sorry to make such a ignorant, racist comment. It was a very stupid, dumb mistake."

The Times, however, also found a message from Ryan_Smith11, reading:

"Don't make fun of blacks, I had a few in on my family tree. Until I cut the ropes." The account also identified the poster as being from Gloucester.

City school officials aren't the only ones across New England and the nation wrestling with the aftermath of the racist outburst, which has drawn fire from political and civic leaders from coast to coast.

According to media reports, a student at St. John's Prep in Danvers allegedly posted one of the remarks. That student, who lives in Beverly, was reportedly fired from his workplace, and St. John's officials are investigating the incident.

The Cumberland, R.I., School District and Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire were also looking into pursuing disciplinary action against students there identified as sending out blatantly racist posts, many also laced with obscenities.

Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.