Arizona High School Students Make Video to Calm N-Word Photo Firestorm

Desert Vista High School students released a video to help their school following the firestorm over a photo shared widely on social media of six white students spelling the n-word with T-shirts.

(UPDATE: New Times got booted from the Tempe Union High School District's meeting with community officials this afternoon — see below for further details.)

The video report was shot, written, and produced by Thunder Media students who report on behalf of the school's internal TV program, DVTV. While the video shows apparently sorrowful white students creating a "unity chain" and listening to teachers talk about the need for sensitivity, a student narrator notes that "DV was judged based on the actions of a handful of students. But their words do not reflect the ideals and beliefs of the rest of Desert Vista faculty and students."

There was a protest outside the school Monday by African-American civil-rights activists, and an Arizona Republic article today reported that Tempe Union High School District's Desert Vista is "66 percent White and 7 percent Black," a greater disparity than in nearby high schools.

Indeed, district officials have treated the issue, which surfaced Friday after publication of the photo, as a school-wide problem.

This week, the school rearranged students' schedules to "take part in reflection and unity activities with their teachers," says TUHSD spokeswoman Jill Hanks.

The week started with a message from Principal Christine Barela, who told the students over the PA system that "during our senior panoramic pictures, a very poor decision was made. As we know, this decision has immensely impacted our students and community."

Hanks says the students were then "given an opportunity to reflect on their own feelings, give input on how to move forward as a school, and build a unity chain that was then strung along the front fence of the school."

The TUHSD's web site now displays a diversity message prominently on its home page.

Besides the protest at the Ahwatukee school at 16440 South 32nd Street in Phoenix, school officials met with black community leaders, and local black activist Jarrett Maupin brought out the girl who had portrayed the "r" in the photo, Rachel Steigerwald. She tearfully apologized for her actions but was yelled at by black protesters who called her a "little white bitch."

Maupin tells New Times that community leaders, including Don Harris of the NAACP (who happens to be white), and "hand-picked Negroes" have a 3 p.m. meeting scheduled at the district's headquarters today.

Hanks says the meeting is not open to the public.

Maupin says none of the other five girls has responded to invitations to apologize; he says he sent them the invitations after obtaining their contact information from other students. He also says the girls have received five-day suspensions, even though Hanks told New Times previously that this is inaccurate.

Meanwhile, more than 44,000 clicks were recorded on a petition on that demands Barela be fired and the girls expelled.

"Arizona has been stricken with another blatant expression of racism and ignorance," the online petition states. " This hurtful use of a racial slur is a complete disregard for the dignity of the black community in Arizona and across the nation and the punishment does not fit the total ignorance and cruelty of the crime." 

UPDATE: 3:30 p.m. — Various community leaders met at the Tempe Union High School District office at 500 West Guadalupe. After in invite to the closed meeting by activist Jarrett Maupin, New Times showed up before Maupin, was allowed to enter the meeting after signing in, and was soon kicked out. New Times snapped the photo below before exiting. Maupin showed up about 10 minutes later and went inside. A Channel 12 News (KPNX-TV) truck rolled up afterward.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.