Racist Picture Spells Big Trouble for Ahwatukee High School Girls

(UPDATE:  Desert Vista High School students released a video to help their school following the racist-picture firestorm, which included a demonstration Monday led by metro Phoenix civil rights leaders.)

Six Desert Vista High School seniors caused outrage and were disciplined after a picture circulated on social media of the girls forming the n-word with letters on their shirts.

Smiling and laughing as they press shoulders together to make the word, the girls seem to be proud of their spelling skills and oblivious to the storm of criticism to come. 

The photo of the Ahwatukee schoolgirls went viral after it was posted online, quickly sparking controversy and discussion about the obvious need for more reform on racial issues. The lettered shirts were worn as part of senior picture day, and a picture taken before the offending shot shows a couple of dozen girls spelling, "Best You've Ever Seen * Class of 2015."

The letter photo prompted Twitter user Tyler Baldwin to remark that "things were about to go downhill quickly" for the class.

Many Twitter and Facebook users commented that a rumored five-day suspension was too lenient for the girls. They wanted to see the girls expelled, made to do volunteer work, or face additional punishment.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said he talked to the Phoenix Police Department and heard that the girls have been threatened.

"We will be sending a community action officer to the school to monitor the situation and to talk to the girls and their families," DiCiccio wrote on Facebook. "They made a bad mistake as many teenagers do in life. But any threats against these young women is going to be taken very seriously . . . People just need to knock off the threats and leave this to school officials and their parents. Period."

Police vehicles arrived at the campus this afternoon to help keep the peace. Bruce Kipper, principal at Phoenix's Mountain Pointe High School, reportedly e-mailed parents to say Christine Barela, the principal of Desert Vista, "was extremely upset about the situation and was handling it appropriately." 

Jill Hanks of the Tempe Union High School District, which oversees the Ahwatukee school, said officials were "absolutely outraged by this behavior." The specific discipline wouldn't be publicly released, but Hank said the district "will be addressing the obvious need for sensitivity training in this case.”

The controversy comes three months after an Arizona State University student tweeted the n-word in a post showing her and a friend pretending to pick cotton. That photo also went viral, drawing heavy scorn and complaints of racism. Why the Desert Vista girls formed the word isn't known, but their action makes it clear that bigotry still exists — and that some young people still don't understand the power of their own posted words and images.

 "The event that took place today at Desert Vista will not be tolerated," Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca said. "It is unacceptable for any racial slur to be used regardless of intent. We need to understand that words matter. I can assure you the appropriate disciplinary action will be taken."

The district also released a letter from Principal Barela, who stated: "Those actions do not represent who we are as a campus . . . As a precaution, Phoenix police will be increasing security at and around Desert Vista."

See below for more social media comments about the viral photo:

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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.