Four people have been arrested for harassing communications following a sophomore's post on social media detailing her experience with racism at Madison Southern High School.
Public Information Officer Barry Manley of the Berea Police Department confirmed Friday morning two juveniles and two adults have been charged with harassing communications. Names and ages of the adults aren't being released at this time, and the investigation is ongoing.
The arrests stem from Macie Hill's social media post made on Wednesday about an incident that happened Tuesday.
But Macie said racism has always been something she's had to combat, explaining normally it was "little-to-mildly severe things" in her everyday life.
Things became worse in February, she explained.
"I was outside playing kickball, 'cause I have a weightlifting class, but it was nice day, and we didn't lift and we had sub. So we went outside and we played kickball with some of the ROTC kids who were outside playing," she said. "And so while we were playing, I heard one of the kids say the n word, so you know, I said that makes me uncomfortable, and then they said, 'What, it's not like we called you … ' and then he says the n word again."
Hill went to a teacher who said they would handle it, but they also told her the student didn't mean it like that, that they know the student, and the student isn't racist.
"Then after I went to the teacher, I knew they weren't going to handle it properly, so then I went to the principal, and the kid ended up getting in trouble," she said. "You know, they never tell me what actually happened to him, but they said that they dealt with it, and then a couple months later, while we were in, you know, social distancing and can't go to school and everything, they sought me out on Snapchat."
She explained her Snapchat is completely private. She doesn't have her username anywhere, and the student had to search for her on the app.
"One of the people who I didn't know, but I saw that they went to Southern, so I thought that I had seen them around, I accepted his request, and he added me to a big group of those ROTC kids who were, you know, just making fun of me and calling me the n word."
The following day was when Macie made her concerns about racism public on social media including screenshots of what happened. But it wasn't just that one incident, and she said she hasn't been the only victim.
Her older sister, Moriah Hill, a senior at the school, said she has also experienced racism at the school. She said she had problems with the same student who made the remarks at kickball before they even knew who Macie is.
The two said, though, that not everyone in the social media group was involved.
"Some people were just put into the group without knowing anything that had happened or what was going to happen," Moriah said.
Macie agreed, and she added that not all of her struggles at the school involved students. She and her sister often felt ignored by teachers.
"In honors English, we had to read books like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Of Mice and Men.' Both of those books say the n word," Macie said. "And I just felt like if we're going to read books with that type of language in them, we need to at least take steps and explain why we shouldn't say those words, you know, and why it's not OK. But both of the teachers I've had failed to ever explain why we don't use that language."
Macie said when she expressed discomfort about the curriculum to the teacher, she was given the choice to read a different book, but the teacher said the class would still read the original book.
"I said that it made me really uncomfortable, and (they) basically told me that its (their) class and (they) get to make the ultimate decision," Macie said. "I feel really ignored."
She said none of her assigned reading has been written by black authors, either.
"For one, it makes me feel less than everybody else," Macie added. "I feel like my opinions don't matter the way everyone else's opinions matter. I'm just really sick of being ignored in my school system."
She explained that on some days, it impacts her learning, too.
"It seems like, at least like four times a month, something happens, I'm calling, I'm texting, I'm getting pulled out of class, it's just I can't learn the same way other students do," she said.
"And then we tell our principals, you know, and we get told there's nothing that they can do and that their hands are tied," Moriah added. "So we feel like we're not even being heard."
Meetings with administration
"I think for us, things start as just little things in passing," said Moriah and Macie's mom, Susan Hill. "We always teach our kids, you know what, you're going to have to be bigger than that, you're going to have to rise above that. That does not define you. We always really just try to instill in them their value and forgiveness."
She said she and her husband, Jonas Hill, didn't get involved until Feb. 13, after the student made racial slurs at kickball.
"The girls have fought silently … intently for about a year, and then we went to (administration) in February and had several meetings with administration and voiced our concerns, and of course, in March, when we all left school, things have kind of just quieted down," Susan Hill said.
They continued to have phone conversations with Principal Brandon Watkins and Superintendent David Gilliam after instruction went to being at-home, because they still wanted to see change in the school. They were aware of issues before that, but always encouraged the girls to talk to their teachers and to the school administration.
Susan Hill estimates they've met with Watkins about eight times, and once with Gilliam. During their meetings, the family went over more issues than simply the remarks made during kickball.
"I expect the school to no longer allow the students of Madison County to wear these flags to school, for one," Jonas Hill said. "I don't want them to be able to wear the Confederate flag to school 'cause I feel like they're using it to intimidate minorities."
For example, a student wore a hat depicting the Confederate flag, and his daughters told the teacher. The teacher took the hat, held it to the end of the school day, gave it back to the student, and the student came back wearing a hat and a shirt with the flag on them.
"They were making plans to have a day where they all wear the rebel flag, and they're yelling this in front of the girls, knowing that they're listening, just to discourage them and frustrate them." he said.
"And I would like them to remove the books that's mandatory class reading out loud in front of everybody that use that word," he said. "There are plenty of good authors out there, there's a lot of good writings out there, to where we don't have to limit ourselves to just those. They're reading in class, these students and the teachers, they're reading the n word out loud, and every time it happens, everyone turns and looks at my daughter, and there, she's the only minority in the class."
The father said he also expects teachers to listen to their students, instead of saying a student "didn't mean it that way."
"How do you know how he meant it? You didn't talk to him," he said.
When they talked to Watkins and Gilliam, the parents said, they were told a lot of these issues regard freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and that the school administration's "hands are tied."
Jonas said as a parent, he feels that response is unacceptable.
"You mean to tell me that my daughters are coming to you and coming to me and saying there are times they feel unsafe, and you're telling me you can't protect them and your hands are tied?" he explained.
The school's handbook, on a page pertaining to the dress code, states "any decal-type patch or emblem that is obscene, sexually suggestive, disrespectful or which contains slogans, words, or in any way depicts alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or any illegal, immoral, or racist implication is prohibited."
Any faculty or staff who observes violations of the dress code is instructed to send the offending student to the principal or an assistant principal, who is allowed to send the student home to correct the violation if it can't be corrected at school. It continues to say the school principal or assistant principal shall assign punishment.
Jonas said other schools have a very similar policy, and it has been enforced in other nearby schools, such as ones in Lexington.
"I don't know if they're afraid to use it or what the issue is, but it's being used in other areas," he explained.
Susan Hill said the family has been assured by Watkins that he will not allow racism to go on, but for confidentiality reasons, he can't explain to them how the situations have been handled.
"I feel like the punishment has not fit the crime, and that's why we're sitting here on our back porch being interviewed," Jonas Hill said.
"Regardless of what the punishment is, it has happened so many times after the punishment that the punishment isn't (working)," Macie said.
"They don't take it seriously," Moriah added. "They don't understand what we go through. They can't relate to it."
"In large part, we feel and I believe it's the feelings of my daughters as well, they were ignored. Nothing was done. They tried to raise it up, spoke to the teachers, the teachers kind of blew it off, as though it was meaningless," Jonas Hill said.
Both parents, Macie and Moriah also explained there are currently no minority teachers at the school.
"Whenever we have problems like these, we feel like we have nobody that we can go to and talk to about these problems that will actually make sure that something gets done about it," Moriah said.
Macie and Moriah said last year, there were three minority teachers/staff, but they either left or were let go.
"When you're an adult, if your work environment is hostile, you can leave and get another job," Macie said. "But we're students. We can't leave."
There are also no minorities on the school board.
"We just feel like there's no representation for them," Susan Hill explained.
Jonas said that's another thing he hopes to see change. He'd like to have some minorities as teachers at the school. He'd also like to see the current teachers educated on how to handle a situation in which a student expresses discomfort when it comes to racism.
Jonas and Susan said they were hoping changes would be made through these meetings with administration, but after Macie was added to the social media group where she was victim to being ridiculed and called racial slurs, the family decided to take more action, such as Macie's post on social media.
Since then, Watkins issued the following statement:
"Many of you are aware of a terrible and unacceptable incident that happened on social media this week. This incident includes behavior that does not and will not be representative of our school or community. As a school and a district, it simply will NOT be tolerated. Any incident such as this, will be handled in the most serious manner. Since being made aware of the social media incident, we have worked closely with the Berea Police Department and with those involved to be swift and just in our handling of the situation. Please be assured that the incident is being dealt with by our school administration and by the Berea Police Department. We are also aware of a previous incident in our school and want to assure our school community that the previous incident was also dealt with in a swift and just manner. We have not and we will not turn a blind eye to any issue of discrimination that arises. We ask for your continued support in resolving this matter. Please take the opportunity to talk with your children about the importance of being a good digital citizen. Please take the opportunity to talk with your children about the importance of treating others with kindness and civility. We promise to continue to have those conversations with our students as well."
Watkins and Gilliam have been unavailable to comment since Thursday afternoon, according to Community Education Director Erin Stewart.
The family, however, has had meetings with Watkins after Macie's post was made, and Jonas Hill said the tone of the meetings has changed.
"We are own advocates, and we're hoping that through this, we'll be able to help others, and we're very, very pleased with the response," Jonas Hill said. "Within an hour of posting, we've had over 1,000 people share this message."
In addition to bringing attention to the matter of racism at the school on social media, the family contacted Berea Police Department Wednesday.
"We never wanted things to take this turn, you know, but we had to have some good come from this," Susan Hill said. "Our girls just should not have to suffer through high school. It's not fair."
Berea police had the family visit the police station and made them feel heard, the girls said.
"We are definitely taking the matter seriously and seeing what’s going on," Chief Eric Scott said.
He said Thursday it is a difficult case as it involves youth and social media, but that officers would interview all parties involve, determine what crimes are suitable (harassment and hate crime, for example) and take the case to the courts.
He said the goal is to "determine the basis and intent of what's going on," but added, "there are definitely concerns looking at this."
"We are going to deal with it appropriately," Scott said.
Macie explained she doesn't want people to make threats or become violent with the four who have been arrested.
"I'm obviously upset about the people who said those things to me, I guess I just wish that they'd learn, you know," she said. "I want them to learn from what they've done. I don't want them to just get a slap on the wrist like they've been getting in the past, because that's not working. Other schools, they would expel students for things like this, but my school is still letting them graduate, and that bothers me."
It isn't about payback, the parents added.
"They need to have their punishment, because what they've done is wrong, but the bigger picture for us is that the current philosophy at the school changes," Jonas Hill said. "I feel that the system let my children down."
Moriah also has aspirations for her school, which her younger sisters will be attending in the future.
"I mean, this is how I have to end my senior year, you know, dealing with this stuff," Moriah added. "The whole point in this is to get change and to protect all the minorities coming up to Southern. We don't want them to go through what Macie and I went through."
Reach Sara Kuhl at 624-6626; follow her on Twitter @saraekuhl.