Middle school students at a local prep school got a lesson in “symbols of hate” from one of their peers Wednesday.
Fifteen-year-old Moremi Akinde addressed sixth through eighth graders at the Pine Crest School's Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale campuses about an ugly subject: intolerance, and the lessons she learned about it from her former school.
As detailed previously in the South Florida Times, on Valentine's Day, Akinde, then 14, and her friends were sitting at an outdoor lunch table at the Somerset Academy charter school in Pembroke Pines, when one of them noticed a white rope fashioned into a noose.
The noose was hanging from the base of the umbrella covering a table directly behind them. When Akinde confronted a group of boys sitting at that table, whom she said had pushed the rope in their direction “to make sure we saw it,” she says her outrage was greeted by laughter.
“They said it was just a joke.”
Akinde took the matter seriously, however, and she and her mother, Adeyela Bennett, went to the administration.
Her stepfather, South Florida Times executive editor Bradley Bennett, told more than 350 students at Pine Crest's Fort Lauderdale campus and nearly 300 students at the Boca Raton campus Wednesday that the reaction of the school leadership was less than inspiring.
“The headmaster [at Somerset] called the boys involved in the incident among the ‘best and brightest’ at the school,” said Bennett, who said he decided the Times should cover the story at the urging of friends.
Bennett said the story, first reported in the Times, soon caught the interest of other print and TV media, but he faulted some TV news outlets that allowed the Somerset headmaster, Bernardo Montero, to change his story, telling the outlets the rope “might have been a slip knot used to tie down the umbrella [on the table], that might have been mistaken for a noose.”
On the contrary, says Bennett, Montero “told the Times he knew it was a noose, and he was offended by it.”
The noose incident attracted widespread attention, including from the Florida NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Florida Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice. Anti-bias and diversity education workshops took place at the school.
In March, the six male students involved in the incident, whose identities were never disclosed but whose backgrounds Akinde says were Indian, Brazilian, Latino, white and even one black, were suspended in March.
Akinde narrated a Powerpoint presentation about the history of nooses, emphasizing their use as a symbol of terror for African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
She said she tried to educate her peers at Somerset about the deeply divisive nature of the symbol the boys had called “a joke,” but said that speaking out had come at a price.
“I got a very negative reaction at school, even from a lot of people I thought were my friends. People accused me of doing it for attention,” she said.
“The worst thing anyone said to me was, ‘What's the big deal, it was just a joke.”
She said some students even tried to “start fights” with her.
According to Bennett, Akinde would have been placed on detention by school officials after she brought a flier to school depicting a lynching. The detention never happened because Akinde’s parents withdrew her from the school to protect her from retaliation. She has been accepted to Pine Crest for 10th grade in the fall.
Her parents have not decided on whether she will attend the school.
Several students in the audience asked questions of Akinde, including one who noted that the assembly was being held on Holocaust Remembrance Day. That day of remembrance of the murder of millions of Jews before and during World War II, also called Yom Hashoah, actually falls on Friday, May 2, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
The Pine Crest assemblies happened on the same day that the Broward Sheriff’s Office said someone painted three black swastikas on the outside of a synagogue in Parkland, and defaced a stop sign in the worship center’s parking lot with the words “4 Hitler.’’
According to Pine Crest's diversity director, Karla Dejean, the school extended the invitation to Akinde and Bennett after learning about it from the media. She says the assemblies at both campuses were held in order to be proactive.
“We in the administration were very interested in addressing this unfortunate situation that appeared to be copycatting the Jena incident” of 2007, in which white students in Jena, Louisiana hung nooses from a tree in the schoolyard after a group of black students sat underneath it, touching off a legal controversy when the black students were charged with attempted murder for assaulting a white student. “We wanted to say to our students that these kinds of incidents won't be tolerated.”
Bob McGrath, principal of Pine Crest's middle school, said he hoped the presentation, which also included a video by 10th grade student Nathaniel
Braffman that addressed various forms of intolerance, from racism and anti-Semitism, to hatred of homosexuals, and titled “Symbols of Hate,” would help his students learn the importance of acting responsibly.
“I hope they'll learn from this that there are always choices, and now that they know, they can make the right choices,” McGrath said.
Photo by Toni Marshall: Moremi Akinde