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Altered photo of Duluth student a hate crime, family says; school district investigating

A photo of a black Duluth Denfeld High School student, altered to show a noose drawn around his neck with the words "Gotta hang em all" at the bottom of the image, started circulating on social media Thursday.

The two students involved in the creation and distribution of the photo have been identified, and the Duluth school district is "taking appropriate action through its policies," Superintendent Bill Gronseth said Friday.

Community activist Sharon Witherspoon is the grandmother and foster parent of the 10th-grade student pictured in the photo. His parents are both deceased.

"It just happened to be my grandson, but I would be upset if it was anyone," she said Friday, characterizing the act as racist and "a hate crime."

Witherspoon, chairwoman of the district's Education Equity Advisory Council, said she notified Denfeld principal Tonya Sconiers when she found out what had happened. District officials have worked quickly to handle the issue, she said, and she's grappling with what she thinks is an appropriate outcome for the students who made the altered photo, which first appeared on Snapchat.

"It has to be fair and it has to be equal," Witherspoon said. "These are children. Does that concern me? Yes. But sometimes a lesson has got to be learned."

She said the district is lacking cultural training for students, and needs to employ a culturally sensitive staff member to help with developing its curriculum.

There are disciplinary policies and efforts to prevent bullying, she said, but nothing that seems to address what happened to her grandson, who told her that students laughed about the photo. And what happened has had ramifications for people outside of the school, she said, noting she heard from black members of the community who told her the photo caused them to feel fear.

To address the incident and the effects of the photo, Gronseth said, the district is working with the families involved and community members and leaders.

"It affects the whole community," he said of the image. "I'm not just talking about the students involved, but those affected by it. ... We want to move forward in a positive way, and use it as a learning experience."

District administration has spoken with teachers about what happened and sent a message to parents asking them to emphasize the responsible and respectable use "and the sheer power and magnitude of social media," Gronseth said, noting other ways to address what happened are being discussed.

"I'm confident we are going to do our best to make sure this doesn't happen again and that something comes out of this," Witherspoon said. "We teach English and addition; we need to teach how to be humane to people."

Duluth police said Friday night that they are not investigating or involved in the incident at this time.

The subject of lynching is especially sensitive in Duluth, where in 1920 three black circus workers were beaten and lynched by a mob in downtown Duluth, after the three men were falsely accused of the rape of a white girl.

The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial at First Street and Second Avenue East stands as a reminder of that lynching nearly 95 years ago.

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