Viral Photo of Arizona Teens Spelling N-Word Sparks Closed Meeting of Leaders

The viral photo of six teenage girls spelling the n-word with T-shirts sparked a meeting this week of more than 40 community leaders that was closed to the public.

The meeting over the still-hot subject of the photo, widely perceived as racist, was put together by Tempe Union High School District officials and featured notable politicians and activists, plus educators, parents and at least two students from the school at the center of the squall, Desert Vista High School.

Although the point of the get-together was to help heal the community, members of the news media were told to stay out. The meeting ran from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the TUHSD building at 500 West Guadalupe Road in Tempe.

“We're going to start funding a project by the kids at [Desert Vista], stop the use of the n-word and hope it becomes a national type of trend,” Don Harris, president of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP, after after the meeting Tuesday evening. “In this country of ours, we have racism, and it's got to be addressed.”

Harris didn't have full details of the plan. Much of the meeting seemed focused on airing out issues surrounding the incident after days of Internet outrage

The uproar over the  Desert Vista incident comes after more than a year of national racial tension that included the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the violent arrest of a black Arizona State University professor by a campus cop. 

Local Leaders agreed the racism issue goes much deeper than the thoughtless act of six high-school seniors.

Harris said Desert Vista appears to have a particular problem: “It's come out that the word is used loosely around the school.”

Considering Monday's public apology by one of the six teens, Harris said he thinks it “would be very wise” of the remaining five girls to admit they did a “stupid thing,” say they were sorry, and move on.

The girls have received threats after the photo spread like wildfire on Friday, and police ramped up their presence at the Ahwatukee school. Protesters demonstrated at the school on Monday while students broke from their normal schedule to discuss diversity issues and to construct a “unity chain” made of yellow paper. School district officials still haven't decided on the proper discipline for the girls, shooting down rumors of a five-day suspension.

After getting invited to the meeting by activist Jarret Maupin, and having previously been told by Jill Hanks, the school district's spokeswoman, that the meeting was closed to the media, New Times showed up at the district office just after 3 p.m., while the meeting was in progress.

Officials outside the large conference room, two sides of which consist partly of glass walls, told a reporter to sign in and enter, although Maupin wasn't yet there. Not long after, Anna Battle, assistant superintendent for TUHSD operations, asked the reporter to leave. The meeting photo seen here was shot on the way out.

Hanks later commented: "There is no obligation to invite media into any district meetings with the exception of governing board meetings, of which this was not."

"The purpose of the meeting was so that we would be able to engage and listen and learn," Battle said, explaining why the meeting wasn't open to the public. Having media attention "wasn't the atmosphere we were looking for."

Maupin later told New Times: "They told us not to talk to the media."

Several participants declined to comment after the meeting, including Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, Tempe Councilman Corey Woods and Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio.

Two Desert Vista students who spoke at the meeting said they found the time well-spent.

"Basically, there's a lot that my generation has to learn about racism," said Alyssa Stiggers, 18. "We need to be reminded of how hard our words hit."

Mackenzie Saunders, 17, Desert Vista student body president, said the action of the six girls in the photo were "inexcusable," but they do not represent the school's values.

"Desert Vista didn't do anything to push this situation to happen," she said.

Saunders said some of the girls in the photo are her friends. They're "terrified" at the anger and "hate" focused on them, she said.
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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.