The original plan was for Desert Vista High School seniors to come together while wearing black t-shirts decorated in gold tape to spell out a perfectly innocent phrase, “BEST*YOU’VE*EVER*SEEN*CLASS*OF*2016.” But there was apparently an additional plan among six of those students to get together for a picture of their own.

In the picture that’s now made its rounds online, the six young white students can be seen together spell out the word “NI**ER.” They’re holding each other, smiling and even striking a pose here and there as if what they’re doing is harmless. One could go as far as to assume the moment was meant to be a lighthearted joke among friends. Unfortunately for the students, it was a very tasteless joke that took on a life of its own once it got to the public.

According to The Root, Desert Vista Principal Dr. Christine Barela sent out a  letter to parents explaining the school’s position on the matter. After expressing disapproval and disappointment, Barela allegedly declared that the students would be disciplined “in accordance with district policy and our student handbook.” Barela reportedly went on to say that, while the school wouldn’t disclose any specifics about the punishment, “the obvious need for sensitivity training will be addressed.”

Other school district officials have come out and repeated the same message, give or take a few words, and haven’t shared any details about what punishment the students might face. But then a rumor got out that the girls were just risking a five-day suspension, according to the Daily News.

Many felt that this, a mere week out of school and a slap on the wrist, wasn’t an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. As of now, there are more than 35,000 signatures on a petition to have the students expelled. It also calls for Barela’s immediate resignation after finding a five-day vacation a suitable response.

Does that sound a bit extreme? Well, let’s add some perspective about the racial climate at Desert Vista High School. According to ABC15, this isn’t the first time racial intolerance at the Arizona high school has made the news. In May of 2014, Dr. Cicely Cobb filed a federal lawsuit against the Tempe Union High School District citing instances of racial discrimination among students and a lack of proper action by administrators.

One of the instances that Cobb brought to light involved a white student asking to see a black student’s driver’s license after saying, “you are probably so black in the picture, we can only see your teeth.” Cobb claimed administration did nothing when she brought up the altercation and laughed it off.

To make matters worse, the reported racism wasn’t only directed at black students, but also Cobb, a teacher. There was allegedly a video circulating of a white student hitting Cobb in the head with a bathroom pass. However, the school district claimed that no act of racial discrimination took place and, instead, the incident was a result of Cobb’s teaching performance.

If the six students that posed for the now-famous picture have been a part of Desert Vista since they were freshmen, that means they were enrolled at the time of Cobb’s alleged altercations. Which means that this they are likely the result of a culture of the institution itself and an administration allowing these kinds of actions to take place with little to no consequence.

I’m a 2014 graduate of the University of Missouri. The same school that made national news after the entire football team chose to join in protests against the institution’s long-standing issues with race. I lived in a residential hall where a nearby statue was defaced with the word “nigger” by a student. [While it’s a story for another day, I have a strong inkling that this was done in direct response to my friends and I.] I’ve sat in a lounge and overheard a room full of white students rant about the “nigger” issues on campus.

Those instances are why a five-day suspension isn’t nearly enough punishment. I’ve seen first-hand what students that find things like this humorous will probably become. Luckily, some are still young and open-minded enough to be taught just how unacceptable these actions were and grow from it to become better people.

But if they attend a school that will allegedly laugh off racism, or slap it on the wrist with a week-long vacation, there are no real steps being taken to solve the problem. There’s a school full of students a country full of citizens watching to see if what these students did will be forgiven behind the guise of just being another youthful mistake. If so, we’re just continuing an unfortunate trend of condoning intolerance.

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