Forest Hills district, community react to Northern student photographed in blackface

A Forest Hill Northern High School student photographed in alleged 'blackface' makeup on Thursday, Feb. 1. 
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The Forest Hills Northern High School senior that was photographed in blackface on Thursday, Feb. 1 committed an offensive and unacceptable act, district officials and community members said Monday. 

The photos created an uproar on social media, and they were shared over 2,000 times. 

Forest Hills Public Schools was alerted to the photos on Feb. 2 of the student, which shows dark makeup covering his face, and they began an investigation, said Superintendent Daniel Behm. 

"The student found a makeup kit, [and] he decided he would put some of the makeup on," Behm said. "He went across the hall to the bathroom, removed the makeup. And it all, from start to finish, was less than five minutes."

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The school released a letter to parents Sunday, saying there was never any mention of the student using racial slurs, which was indicated on some Facebook posts. 

"We interviewed all the students in the classroom and the student in question and the substitute teacher, we found [the slurs] did not happen at all," Behm said. 

The student did not have racist intentions, and didn't understand his actions would be offensive, the district's superintendent emphasized. 

"Unfortunately, this student is unaware of the long historical record of racism related to people in blackface," Behm said. "Whether our actions are intentional or unintentional, it creates hurt...we cannot have that." 

The Greater Grand Rapids NAACP said racism issues are not new at Forest Hills Public Schools.

"Over the course of the past several weeks, we have been contacted by concerned parents and students regarding multiple incidents [involving] the use of racial slurs," said Tavian Moore, president of the NAACP youth council. "This wasn't something that we were surprised about." 

In 2016, students at Forest Hills Central sparked a racial controversy when they brought an older version of the U.S. flag, which is sometimes associated with white supremacist groups, to a football game against a Grand Rapids team with mostly black players. Superintendent Behm also stated at that time, the students had no racist intentions.  

"Moving forward we're demanding that the school develops a zero-tolerance policy with racism," Moore said. 

Other students at Forest Hills Northern were also upset by the photos. 

The student is a senior, and at his age, should know better, said D'Kyah Flannel, a junior at Northern who saw the student walk to the bathroom to clean his face. 

"I don't believe that it was completely innocent," Flannel said. "The message came across the way it did, regardless of what he meant or if he meant to be funny. It wasn't funny." 

The Forest Hills Northern principal held an assembly for the whole school on Monday morning, Feb. 5 to talk about the incident. The message seemed sugar-coated, said senior Danielle McMillon.

"In the assembly, it was just like the email that got sent out," McMillon said. "It was basically just trying to protect Northern and keep the great name that it has." 

Behm said the principal is meeting with students that would like to talk about the incident. The district would not say if the student is being punished. 

In response to the incident, students have organized a "Blackout against blackface" demonstration. Students across the district plan to wear black on Tuesday, Feb. 6 to "stand in solidarity with students who experience racist acts on campus." 

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