POTOMAC, Md. (ABC7) — Staff at Winston Churchill High School caught a number of students exchanging “N-word passes” during the lunch hour Friday.
The pieces of paper, reportedly handed from student to student, provided passholders with "permission" to use the N-word. Whether the teenagers involved were joking or serious remains a topic of hot debate.
"It’s a joke that maybe went a tiny bit too far at the most," said a sophomore who explained that two of his friends brought the passes to school. “I never touched the passes though.”
ABC7 has learned the passes were not homemade, but rather printed copies of an online meme that depicts a yellow Willy Wonka Golden Ticket with the words "N-WORD PASS" photoshopped onto the digital image.
According to Merriam-Webster, a meme is "an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media."
“One person saw it and got offended," said the sophomore. “That’s it.”
The student who got offended, who classmates say is a black female, notified Churchill staff members Friday about the passes. Principal Brandice Heckert acted swiftly, and offered harsh criticism of those involved.
"I am deeply disappointed and appalled that any student in our school would chose to engage in such a racist, hateful act," Heckert wrote in an email sent to the Churchill school community Monday evening. "This behavior is disgraceful and does not reflect the values expected of Winston Churchill students."
Montgomery County Public Schools told ABC7 around 15 "N-word passes" were distributed throughout Churchill. The school system further shared that the three primary culprits consist of a "mixed group" of races.
“Your principal called this racist conduct. Do you agree with that classification?” ABC7’s Kevin Lewis asked the sophomore he spoke with Tuesday.
“I do not agree. No one was trying to offend anyone, no one was saying the actual word, and no one thought it was okay to say the actual word.”
He explained that four of his friends have been suspended from school for varying lengths of time, ranging between one to six days. MCPS would not confirm specific disciplinary details, citing student privacy laws.
"It should have been a one day suspension at the most, just protocol for schools, but it ended up being a lot more than that," said the 10th grader, who further shared that administrators gave him detention simply because he refused to "snitch" on his friends.
"They asked me if I thought the passes were 'offensive.' I said, 'sort of, but not really.' They told me I needed to think it was wrong," he added. He contended that one should not have to flip on their friends and/or alter their beliefs simply to avoid punishment.
Two mothers of students involved told ABC7 they believe Churchill administrators "grossly mischaracterized" what was simply meant to be a spoof. One of the mothers went so far as to call the school's handling of the matter "libelous."
In light of this incident, a Churchill PTSA meeting scheduled for Tuesday, February 19, will now focus solely on “tolerance, racism, and bias.”
"I feel very fortunate to be the principal at Winston Churchill High School, but acts of hatred and intolerance frustrate and sadden me because I believe that we are better than this," concluded Heckert’s email, which included links to literature for parents to share with their children.
Here is Principal Brandice Heckert's full email to the Winston Churchill High School community:
I wanted to update you regarding the incident I shared in my letter on Friday, February 8. After an investigation, we have confirmed that, on Friday, several students participated in the distribution of “N-word passes” during lunch. As we learned through the investigation, the N-word pass is a paper pass given from one person to another that gives the receiver permission to use the N-word.
I am deeply disappointed and appalled that any student in our school would chose to engage in such a racist, hateful act. This behavior is disgraceful and does not reflect the values expected of Winston Churchill students. Not only is this behavior hurtful to our community, but it also undermines all the great attributes our students have to offer. I made a promise to all students that I would not ignore acts of intolerance and hatred. Behavior that is disrespectful and/or intolerant will not be accepted. While I cannot share specific consequences for the students involved, please be assured that they will match the severity of the action and will be in alignment with the Student Code of Conduct.
To move forward, I will be engaging our student body in a conversation about how to foster a welcoming and respectful climate for all. I met with all staff this morning to inform them of the incident from last week and instructed them to acknowledge this act of hatred that occurred within our own walls. They will also be available to any students who may want to discuss last week’s incident or any other incident that has occurred. In addition, this afternoon, I met with student leaders, several staff members and other students to talk about the incident and to discuss what can be done collectively to not only teach acceptance and tolerance, but to also celebrate the different cultures within our community. This must be a collaborative effort. I will be looking to work more closely with our numerous parent organizations and feeder schools to support and educate our community. The PTSA Meeting scheduled for Tuesday, February 19, will solely be an open forum on tolerance, racism, and bias. I will be working closely with members of our equity office for support as well.
I feel very fortunate to be the principal at Winston Churchill High School, but acts of hatred and intolerance frustrate and sadden me because I believe that we are better than this. This act, or like behavior, is not how I want or expect Winston Churchill students to be remembered. I want all students to know that we will address concerns and that their voice matters. I have included some resources for talking with your children below. Thank you.