Racial incident helps Whitewater develop campaign against hate

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Kayla Bunge
Sunday, May 16, 2010
— Elizabeth McComb was upset that her community was seen as ground zero for racial tensions, but she thinks an incident a year ago awakened people to the issue of diversity.

“So many of us were like, ‘Really? Someone was that stupid? Some idiot went and did that?’” the high school senior said. “But it was a wakeup call. It made everyone very much more aware …”

Racial slurs, naming six black students and threatening death, were found written on a bathroom stall at Whitewater High School on May 14, 2009.

Students and community members organized a campaign against hate.

Diversity experts addressed the students and charged them with showing the community what it means to be accepting of differences.

School officials, students, parents and community members formed a task force to examine the issue of diversity in the community.

Police interviewed dozens of students but never found the person responsible for the graffiti. The investigation remains open, and a reward for information leading to an arrest still is available.

The families of three black students named in the threat filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court but dismissed it in October because two of the three children no longer attend school in Whitewater. One of the students stayed in school to finish his senior year and to play football in pursuit of a college scholarship.

School district officials and community members said the incident focused media attention on the community, but it also unified the community around the issue of diversity.

McComb said the incident gave students a reason to raise their collective voice in support of acceptance, tolerance and diversity.

“People really do care,” she said. “We really wanted the students who were affected by it to know that not everyone feels that way, and we wanted everyone else to know we’re not like that.”

Vance Dalzin, principal at the high school, said the incident raised awareness among students and staff about discriminatory behavior.

“It just made us all more attuned to the things we see and hear every day,” he said.

Michele Martin, the juvenile officer for the Whitewater Police Department, said the incident helped students and staff shake off their tolerance of even minor discrimination.

“We found out there were kids with racist-type attitudes that we never even knew about. We found out kids were using the N word more freely,” she said.

“(Staff and students) said, ‘Well, kids always say that.’ … But when this happened, they realized it’s not acceptable.”

Superintendent Suzanne Zentner, who came to the district in July, said the incident brought the school district and the community together.

“I’m really proud of the process and the outcome of our group,” she said. “It was just an amazing illustration of the strength of this community.

“This is not a school issue. This is an issue that transcends communities, states and is a national issue.

It’s not isolated to Whitewater High School, Whitewater School District or our community.”

The Rev. Jerald Wendt, who was among a handful of community members on the task force, said the meetings opened the dialogue about race, ethnicity and diversity in the community.

“I don’t know what it accomplished, really,” he said. “I think it was just a chance to get together and talk …”

Lauren Smith, a concerned parent who helped organize the anti-hate campaign, said the community can do more to support understanding among people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“It was really nice that a lot of people stepped forward around that time to voice their concern about the issue and to be involved in whatever might be done to alleviate the problem,” she said. “I think the conversation has been productive. But I’m not sure such a conversation is a regular part of the community.

“There’s still a lot of outreach that needs to happen.”

Last updated: 1:50 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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