WATER FOUNTAIN FALLOUT: ARE SCHOOL OFFICIALS ADDRESSING TOXIC RACISM?

School Board & public discuss water fountain graffiti

In the wake of racist graffiti left on a Marathon High School water fountain, the Monroe County School District faced questions about how to resolve an environment at MHS that one citizen described as “toxic and hostile.”

In early September, a student wrote the words “white” and “colored” above two adjacent MHS water fountains, a reference to the days of racial segregation. The word “privilege” was later added under “white,” while “black” and “negro” were inscribed under “colored.”

Speaking in the citizen input section of the Nov. 16 school board meeting, 18-year Monroe County resident and parent Stephanie Scuderi criticized the district’s action to address what she described as “a symptom of a more pervasive problem.”

Describing an incident in which the same water fountain offender used Snapchat to share racial slurs about a student with that student’s entire class, Scuderi told the board that “the (targeted) student and the family still bear feelings of shame, disrespect and lack of belonging within a community they themselves grew up in.” She informed the board that the incident prompted the family to consider leaving the Keys in order to “find a better community.”

Scuderi went on to challenge the extent of the school’s response to related issues. “There is a very real perception out there that matters of this nature get swept under the rug,” said Scuderi. “Overcoming that perception is just one challenge for the school district.”

“We need to find a way to infuse a base level of kindness and respect,” she continued. “Meanness, deliberate acts of unkindness and disrespect, these are actions born solely out of ill will. To deny the intended offense is to pull the wool over our own eyes.”

Superintendent Theresa Axford told the board that the district is taking the situation “very seriously.”

Axford went on to describe a campaign to be launched in the near future at MHS, titled “We Don’t Talk Like That Here.” “The intention,” she said, “is to avoid any kind of inappropriate speech that features bigotry, racial profiling, homophobia, name calling, all of those things that make people feel hurt or ridiculed.”

Axford cited the COVID-19 pandemic and popular music with “quite horrific” lyrics as factors that impacted and divided students over periods of virtual schooling and split schedules. “Students haven’t had the opportunity to interact with one another or have that continuous growth that occurs when they work in classrooms and with teachers,” she said. “They’ve gotten into camps, and in those camps there is some inappropriate speech and discussion about others that’s been going on.”

The district has worked to create a more standardized baseline consequence for similar future issues, beginning with a two-day out-of-school suspension. “If you do things outside on your own it may be different, but in school there is appropriate speech, and everybody has to honor and recognize that,” said Axford. “School requires civility.”

 Board chair John Dick cautioned against giving too much weight to mitigating factors. “We can come up with excuses and COVID is this and COVID is that, but it’s too important of an issue, and it’s completely unacceptable,” said Dick. “You can’t let it sit at all. There have to be severe consequences to put a stop to it immediately. Maybe some of it’s in jest, but they have to put a stop to that completely too. I think the consequences should be fast and severe.”

Board member Sue Woltanski took Dick’s comments a step further. Holding up her phone, she stated, “these kids are doing it with this. It’s not like when we were kids and you were protected from the other kids at home. Some of the language of ‘We Don’t Do That Here’ has to extend to the cyber world after school.”

Woltanski added that most board members were not informed of the incident until after media outlets published their reports. “It was a significant enough incident and it occurred long enough before it was in the newspaper that this board should have been aware of it before we saw it on the front page of the paper,” said Woltanski.

“I do apologize that you learned of it in that manner,” replied Axford.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.