Punishments upheld for Martin County students involved in racist photo

Photo taken at Hidden Oaks Middle School, posted on social media on May 16
The Martin County School Board meeds on July 27, 2022.jpg
Posted at 10:02 AM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 21:00:14-04

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — The Martin County School Board on Wednesday upheld the punishments for six students who took a picture with a racial slur at Hidden Oaks Middle School back in May.

The May 16 photo that was heavily circulated on social media showed a group of students standing outside the Palm City school holding letters that spelled out a racial slur.

Blurred picture of Hidden Oaks Middle School students holding letters spelling racist slur
This blurred photograph shows students at Hidden Oaks Middle School holding letters spelling out a racist slur.

After a full-day public meeting Wednesday, school board members upheld the punishments for all six students, who were suspended for the remainder of the 2021/22 academic year — which was nine days — and expelled from Hidden Oaks Middle School.

The students will now be assigned to attend Spectrum Academy — an alternative school for disciplinary issues — for one year and must also complete the Martin County School District's REACH Program which involves community service.

The families of the students had appealed the punishments, which was the purpose of Wednesday's school board meeting.

Martin County School District spokeswoman Jennifer DeShazo said the racist message was created during a traditional art project that takes place every year where students create 3D letters depicting the first letter of their name.

DeShazo confirmed the students were given punishments for their participation in the photo. The names of the students involved have not been released due to student privacy laws.

During Wednesday's school board meeting, Hidden Oaks Middle School art teacher Melissa Nelson emotionally said she's "devastated" and will never assign this project to students again.

"The worst feeling ever," Nelson said. "It's been really hard. I just can't believe that they actually did this. I haven't had one apology."

Hidden Oaks Middle School teacher Melissa Nelson addresses the Martin County School Board on July 27, 2022.jpg
Hidden Oaks Middle School teacher Melissa Nelson addresses the Martin County School Board on July 27, 2022.

"From what we're hearing, this was planned for weeks," said school board member Victoria Defenthaler. "This group of students planned this for a period of time. And they thought it was funny, which means that they knew that there was something wrong with what they were going to do."

Defenthaler took issue with testimony from a licensed psychotherapist and clinical social worker who had examined one of the students and said he was remorseful for his actions.

"They planned this out. And that's a concern because it doesn't mean that, all of a sudden impulsively he went out there and did that. That I would understand. But this is something that was planned out," Defenthaler said.

The photo prompted an increased law enforcement presence at Hidden Oaks Middle School after the image was shared on social media.

The school's assistant principal said Wednesday that one of the students involved received a threat within 24 hours of the photo being posted online.

After the investigation concluded, the six students issued an apology letter for their actions, saying they were deeply sorry and ashamed and take full responsibility for what they did.

"We were wrong and we made a big mistake when we spelled out that derogatory word," the students wrote in the letter. "We thought that word is much like other curse words, but it's not like other curse words. We now know there's nothing funny about it. We were not thinking how this terrible word has hurt so many people for so long."

An attorney for one of the students said Wednesday that while there's no excuse for what the students did, it was not an intentional act.