Education

Palmetto lacrosse team under scrutiny after racist messages in online chat

Miami Palmetto Senior High School
Miami Palmetto Senior High School Courtesy photo

In a social media chat forum, a group purportedly made up of boys lacrosse players at Miami Palmetto Senior High School spouted racial slurs to refer to black classmates and even called for violence against them.

“Senior prank: kill all n******s,” one comment reads.

The messages, originally posted in a private group chat but copied in screen shots to other social media over the weekend, were investigated by school police but produced no charges. But circulation of the racist screed has roiled a prestigious public school that serves the affluent communities of Palmetto Bay and Pinecrest.

Anna Hochkammer, the president of Palmetto’s Parent Teacher Student Association, on Monday branded the comments “offensive, hurtful and awful.’’

Still, Cliff​ord Chevallier, father of a black lacrosse player who was a member of the group chat and blasted the comments as racist, did not call for any players to be punished. He said he was satisfied with how the school district has handled the situation so far.

“They have to live with what they’ve said, and what they’ve done. Their parents taught them,” he said. “The way they’re teaching them today is a disservice not only to the children, but to the community.”

Miami-Dade County school officials said they are monitoring the situation, and offering counseling and sensitivity training to students at the school, which is about 32 percent white, 17 percent black and 46 percent Hispanic.

“There is no place for insensitive, hurtful, and unacceptable racist comments on our streets, in our schools, or on social media,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a tweet on Monday.

The exchanges appear to have been made using the app GroupMe, which allows many people to share text messages with each other all at once. The name of the group chat is PLAX — “lax” being shorthand for lacrosse. The baby blue logo of the team appears. Some students appear to use their names, while others go by nicknames.

It’s unclear what sparked the conversation, in which at least eight different posters made racist remarks. One refers to black students as monkeys who should be caged. Another refers to “sweet tea and chicken bones.” At least two threaten violence.

At one point, Chevallier’s son responded, calling the banter racist. He complained that the players “generalize” black people. In all caps, and using profanity, he called their comments “annoying” and asked them to stop.

In response, one poster replied, “...a n****r is different than a normal black person who has good grammar like you.”

Though Deputy Superintendent Valtena Brown said the district believes the messages are authentic, the Miami Herald is not naming the students involved because they may be minors and have not been charged with a crime. She said all but one member involved in the group chat was on the 30- to 40-member lacrosse team last year; this year’s season hasn’t started yet.

The chat was captured in screen shots that were shared on Facebook and Twitter, drawing quick condemnation.

“This is out of control,” posted Tangela Sears, a Miami-Dade community activist known for supporting families impacted by gun violence.

Chevallier, father of the black player, said he was unhappy the exchange was widely shared because it opened up his son to ridicule for not being “radical” or “black enough.”

“Nobody has ownership of the black race,” Chevallier said. “My experience is not the same as yours, so don’t project your experiences on me — which is what I feel is happening to me.”

Brown said the school district learned of the messages on Thursday. She said school leaders met with the parents and the students involved, and any punishment will be administered on a case-by-case basis according to the student code of conduct.

In the meantime, the student government is meeting with the school principal, “just to talk about the school and how do you move forward, how do they unite as a student body to resolve the sensitive comments that were made in this chat room, and its effect on the student body,” Brown said.

Hochkammer, the PTSA president, said the incident “breaks my heart because Palmetto is a wonderful place.” She said she hoped the school could turn it from a negative into a positive.

“This is one of those teachable moments that all of us have to take advantage of, including parents, to sit down with their kids and talk about what we say and how we say it,” she said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles and WLRN news reporter Nadege Green contributed to this report.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga

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