As thousands were celebrating literature at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, a less-exalted missive from the nether regions of the internet, threatening “ethnic cleansing” at Charlottesville High, closed all city schools last Thursday and Friday. It also prompted CHS’ Black Student Union to lead a walkout for racial justice on Monday.
More than 100 students and community allies gathered at McIntire Park, where they marched past the skate park and up to the guard rails abutting the U.S. 250 Bypass.
“When black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back,” they chanted, waving protest signs toward the oncoming traffic, and cheering when drivers honked in solidarity.
Black Student Union president Zyahna Bryant read a list of 10 demands for the school system, including hiring more black teachers for core classes. “We have one black teacher that teaches an AP class at CHS,” she said.
The group also wants the school to give more weight to African American history, and for school resource officers to have racial bias and cultural sensitivity training.
Senior Althea Laughon-Worrell said CHS administration tried to keep students in school. ”It wasn’t until they saw that we had an outpouring of community support that they seemed to accept that it was happening,” she said. “We can’t personally ensure that our demands are met, but we plan to keep putting pressure on the city and the school board to deal with the issues we have identified.”
Bryant had posted a screenshot of the threat, from the message board 4chan, on Thursday, and said racism in city schools isn’t new. There will be no reconciliation without structural change and the redistribution of resources for black and brown students, she added.
“In the past, when students of color have brought forth racial concerns, there has been no real change,” Bryant said on Thursday. “This is the time to act and show black and brown students that they matter with lasting changes and reform. Now is not the time to pass another empty resolution. It is time to back the words up with action.”
Around noon Friday, March 22, Charlottesville police announced they had arrested and charged a 17-year-old male with a Class 6 felony for threatening to commit serious bodily harm on school property, and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor.
At a press conference, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney told reporters and community members that the culprit identifies as Portuguese, was in Albemarle County at the time of the arrest, and is not a Charlottesville High School student. She said state laws prohibit police from publicly identifying the minor, unless he were to be tried as an adult.
Local, state, and federal partners located the suspect’s IP address with the help of internet service providers, according to Brackney. She did not divulge whether he had any weapons.
“We want the community and the world to know that hate is not welcome in Charlottesville,” Brackney said. “And in Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating: There are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.”
Similarly, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said at the press conference that she hopes the way the threat was handled will lessen fear associated with future threats, and that Charlottesville is “leading the fight for justice globally.”
Also on March 22, Albemarle police reported the arrest of an Albemarle High teen for posting on social media a threat to shoot up the school. Police say that is unrelated to the Charlottesville High threat to kill black and Hispanic students.
City schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said the decision to close schools a second day and keep 4,300 students home was to make sure everyone in the community, including students and staff, feel safe returning to school.
The racial terrorism was a painful reminder to a community already traumatized from the August 2017 invasion of white supremacists.
UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan tweeted on Friday, “Today, as Charlottesville teachers and students sit home for a second day trying not to let fear overtake them, I’m reminded of those who told me after August 12, 2017, that white supremacists were not a threat to this country. If you think that, be glad you have that luxury.”
Charlottesville School Board Chair Jennifer McKeever said, “It’s unfortunate and frankly it’s really frustrating that we live in this world where people can make these threats and feel comfortable making these threats.”
Courtney Maupin’s daughter is a freshman at CHS. “It’s scary to know there are people out there who don’t like you for the color of your skin,” she said. “I had to explain to my two younger children who didn’t understand why they weren’t in school.”
Like most parents, Kristin Clarens, a local anti-racist activist and mom of three, said she’s glad the city made safety a priority.
“I’m grateful for the efforts that people are making to keep our kids safe on every level, but I also think we should be more forceful in calling this act of white supremacy and terrorism out for what it is,” she said. “I’m heartbroken that we live in a climate where this is allowed to get to this level.”
McKeever, too, was heartened by the outpouring of community support in the face of a situation that is “not something you want to have to explain to our children.”—with additional reporting by Lisa Provence
An earlier version of this story appeared online.