A racist message left on a Marathon High School water fountain has prompted an investigation and discipline from Monroe County School District administrators.

As reported to Keys Weekly, a Marathon High School football player labeled locker room water fountains to designate separate fountains for “white” and “colored” students, a reference to the days of racial segregation. Upon discovery, the incident was brought to the attention of high school administration, and an investigation was launched.

When the incident was first reported, questions of whether the action qualified as a hate crime arose. Per the Florida Department of Education’s definition, a hate crime is defined as “an act, or attempted act, to cause physical injury, emotional suffering or property damage through intimidation, harassment, racial/ethnic slurs and bigoted epithets, vandalism, force or the threat of force, motivated all or in part by hostility to, among other factors, the victim’s real or perceived race or color. … Creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational environment. The motivation behind the act is the key element in determining whether an incident is hate-related.”

The DOE website lists, among other examples, “student spray paints anti-gay slogans on bathroom walls” as a relevant example. According to the MHS student handbook, a hate crime is listed as a Level 4 (out of 5) Dangerous or Violent Behavior, carrying possible disciplinary consequences of, among others, restorative practices as well as suspension or expulsion.

However, Monroe County School District’s Coordinator of Community Relations Amber Acevedo confirmed that, “in talking to all parties involved, with all of the information they gathered, (investigators) determined the action did not meet the threshold of a hate crime.”

Acevedo cited two specific factors that, among others, played into the evaluation: the act did not target a specific named individual, and investigators felt that the responsible student’s motivation was not consistent with a hate-related offense.

In a statement shared with Keys Weekly, Monroe County School District Superintendent Theresa Axford wrote, “The incident at Marathon High School was very serious and after investigation, the student received an appropriate serious consequence. The district policy is to do a thorough investigation of such occurrences and determine intent on the part of the students involved. Once that is determined, along with a consequence, sensitivity counseling is provided so that students understand that words and actions matter and that phrases that harm another’s self-esteem or make them feel insulted or demeaned are not acceptable.”

Though the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act precludes discussion of specific details of the investigation and discipline for the student responsible, Acevedo said that, in her estimation, “the disciplinary action was appropriate for the results of the investigation.” 

A few MMHS students, who declined to be identified, indicated that while the incident was unusual, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. “I’ve heard words like that thrown around a lot,” said one student. Others indicated that while they knew the action was unacceptable, some students may have perceived it as a joke.

While the incident raised concerns that similar language or treatment of racial divides is a common occurrence at MMHS, administrators insisted the case was an isolated incident, rather than the norm. “I don’t think it’s prevalent or habitual,” said Acevedo, a former Key West High School principal and MCSD educator for 36 years. “In talking to (Marathon High School principal Wendy McPherson), this is not something that is a regular occurrence. It is out of the ordinary. I do not recall any major incidents like this, and in my current position, nothing similar has occurred.”

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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.