The students who participated in the hanging of a noose at Somerset Academy in Pembroke Pines have been suspended, and the school is working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida Attorney General’s Office to conduct racial sensitivity training workshops.
The school, which is privately run but publicly funded by tax dollars, would not identify the students or say how long the suspensions were supposed to last.
“We as an administrative team have worked diligently to make sure we address this issue,” said the school’s assistant principal, Donyale McGhee, during a meeting of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization on Tuesday, March 11.
The school revealed the suspensions and sensitivity workshops during the meeting.
McGhee also said the school has been in contact with the Anti-Defamation League, which may conduct an anti-bias and diversity education program at Somerset Academy.
“Symbols of hate hurt,’’ Thomas L. Battles, regional director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, told parents and administrators at the meeting.
McGhee said the students involved in the noose hanging were cited for “disorderly behavior, misrepresentation of information, defiance and withholding information from administration.”
The Justice Department workshops will take place on March 25, 26 and 27 at the school, Battles said.
The state Attorney General’s Office workshop will take place on March 24, according to Cindy Guerra, the South Florida regional deputy for the Attorney General’s Office.
“A situation involving children and hate symbols is something we take seriously,” Guerra said.
Upon notice of the incident, Guerra said, the state Attorney General’s Office “contacted the school immediately” and issued an inquiry, since the agency lacks sufficient information for an open investigation.
Guerra insisted that the agency was “not just inquiring, but proactively coming into the school to do the training.”
Battles said the Justice Department will help implement a conflict resolution program called SPIRIT — Student Problem Identification and Resolving of Issues Together — an intensive workshop that encourages students to work together in spreading the message of racial/ethnic sensitivity.
Battles urged teachers and administrators to participate, also.
In answering questions from some of the more than 30 parents who came to Tuesday’s meeting, the school’s headmaster, Bernardo Montero, was careful not to “breach the student confidentiality” by disclosing too much information regarding the students’ identities or their punishments.
“You will not know who these students are,” Montero asserted. “Regardless of the circumstances, they are still kids.”
As first reported in the South Florida Times, the noose incident took place on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, when Somerset freshman Moremi Akinde and several of her friends sat at a lunch table in the outdoor eating area of the school’s campus.
Shortly after they were seated, one of the young ladies spotted a rope fashioned into a noose, dangling from an umbrella affixed to the lunch table directly behind them. The noose recalled the lynchings of black people by white supremacists in the Jim Crow South.
Six male students of various ethnicities were sitting at the table where the noose was hanging. When Moremi and her friends approached the young men, the boys dismissed the offensive symbol as “just a joke.”
Their response prompted Moremi and one of her friends to approach and complain about the noose to Montero, the headmaster.
Montero interrogated the boys at the table in an attempt to find the person responsible for crafting the white rope into a noose and subsequently hanging it in public view.
When none of the boys offered the name of the perpetrator, Montero demanded that the noose be taken down.
Shortly before the noose incident, Moremi wrote a column for the South Florida Times titled, “Banning Black History Month,” in which she expressed her view that relegating black history to the shortest month of the year marginalizes the contributions of the race. The column was distributed at the school, and some students were asked to write responses to it.
Moremi said in a previous interview that there is an undercurrent of racial insensitivity at the school, where she has heard this joke from other students: “What do an apple and a black person have in common? Answer: Both look good hanging from a tree.’’
Noose incidents like the one at Somerset have been on the rise around the United States.
Since last September alone, nooses have been found at a North Carolina high school, a suburban New York police station, a Home Depot in New Jersey and on the campus of the University of Maryland.
In October, a noose was left dangling on the office door of a black professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City.
The noose gained national prominence in Jena, Louisiana last year after three nooses were hung from the branches of a “whites only” tree on the grounds of Jena High School.
The racial unrest that evolved from that noose display was exacerbated due to the school’s apathy and perceived reluctance to aggressively punish the perpetrators. In addition, the school administration’s categorization of the noose hanging as an “adolescent prank” led to further racial divisions within the small Louisiana town.
The Jena incident eventually reached a national crescendo with the March for Peace and Justice, which took place in Jena on Thursday, September 20, 2007.
Soon after the noose incident last month at Somerset Academy, Moremi’s mother, Adeyela Bennett, put in calls to the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and the Broward County Public Schools civil rights office in an effort to garner support in resolving the matter.
In response, Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, contacted other agencies, including the Justice Department – which is the umbrella organization of the Federal Bureau of Investigation – and the state Attorney General’s Office.
“The NAACP’s advocacy definitely prompted the school to take action,” said Bennett.
“[The NAACP] reached out to the Attorney General and FBI,” Bennett said, adding that those agencies needed to enforce the necessary action.
Bennett also filed a report with Pembroke Pines police.
Montero told parents at the meeting, “The situation has been thoroughly investigated by this administration, in conjunction with the Pembroke Pines Police Department. The conclusion revealed there was no crime on behalf of any Somerset Academy student towards another.”
Bennett, however, said she was not pleased with the headmaster’s initial response.
“When I first spoke with the headmaster, I was told, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it,’” Bennett recalled.
Montero’s description of the noose also seemed to change in the days after it was first reported.
After telling the South Florida Times that, “It was a small noose but very detailed,’’ Montero told other news outlets that he had another theory: Due to bad weather, he had asked the maintenance staff to secure the umbrellas in place, and maintenance had used slipknots to do so. The slipknots, he suggested, might have been mistaken as a noose.
At Tuesday’s meeting, however, Montero was again referring to the item in question as a “noose.’’
Although Bennett credits the media attention with helping bring the case to a resolution, she said she is “happy the administration is finally taking the incident seriously.”
During a phone interview with the South Florida Times, Nweze said the issue stretches far beyond one group of students at one school.
“The whole idea should have been prevention,’’ Nweze said. “This signals a much deeper issue beyond the children … They learned it from somewhere. I am hopeful that the incident and subsequent activities will be utilized as a lesson for the entire community … and lessons will be taught around these issues of diversity.
Understanding of various races and cultures is absolutely critical in this world in which they will have to live and function.”
*Photo by Khary Bruyning. Thomas L. Battles, of the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, tells parents and administrators at Somerset Academy that his agency will encourage students to increase racial sensitivity.