In Light of Racial Note, Seaholm Students Say 'It's Cool to Care'
"I want Seaholm to be a safer place," says Nick Resnick, a senior at Seaholm and leader of the student group Birmingham Voice.
As students return from spring break and once again fill the halls of Seaholm High School, the investigation continues into who wrote the racial note discovered at the Birmingham high school two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a group of Seaholm students are standing up against incidents of racism and bullying and in doing so, are letting their classmates know: it's cool to care.
Spearheaded by seniors Nick Resnick and Rebecca Rosen, the program seeks to connect high schoolers with elementary and middle school students across the district and engage them in discussions on bullying, bigotry and what it means to be a bystander.
"We want the people of Birmingham to know there are kids who care," Resnick said. "There is a program that openly says 'We care, and we're going to stand up.' We want to challenge kids to try and step out of their comfort zone and join us."
School confronts racial tension in notes, graffiti
The Cool to Care movement grew out of Seaholm's Birmingham Voice, a student group devoted to dissolving racial tensions at Seaholm. The group entered the limelight last year after a series of racist notes were discovered at the school in spring 2011.
Then-senior Courtney Thomas, a black student, later admitted to writing the first note, claiming he had been bullied because of his race. Thomas is currently serving probation and fulfilling community service hours after pleading guilty to disturbing the peace last August.
Seaholm was put back on alert on March 26, when a note containing racial overtones and referencing three Seaholm staff members and one student — all black — was found in a pile of papers on a classroom floor.
The note, Seaholm principal Deanna Lancaster said, referenced the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, a black teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Several of those targeted in the note also have the same last name as Martin.
According to Birmingham Schools spokeswoman Marcia Wilkinson, Birmingham Police did not interpret the note as an actual threat though they're treating the incident just as seriously. Lancaster said before spring break that school administrators had several leads on the note's author.
'Kids are tired of talking about racism'
However, speaking days after the note was discovered, Resnick and Rosen said while the note created an initial buzz, many students were on their way to forgetting about it: what with spring break around the corner, the beginning of third trimester in full swing and college acceptance letters still arriving in the mail.
Plus, both Resnick and Rosen said many Seaholm students are weary of being portrayed as racist. Within days, the incident had generated dozens of stories in Metro Detroit and throughout the region.
"Kids are tired of talking about racism," Rosen said. "I think they were like, 'Ugh, not again,' and then they moved on."
"I would argue that there are one or two really bad kids," Resnick added. "But there are a lot of kids at Seaholm who are just bystanders."
Senior Simon Schuster, editor of Seaholm's student newspaper, the Seaholm Highlander, agrees that students are tired with the bad press.
"I think if anything students at Seaholm are weary of this event," he said. "They're discouraged by the sort of sensational aspect ... Plus, I think that this specific incident was fueled by the attention it's received."
Lancaster, who's wrapping up her first year as principal at Seaholm, noted that the school has made serious efforts to combat racism and bullying during the past year. Last May, the Birmingham Voice led the Seaholm student body in a special assembly, urging them to "stand up" against racism.
"We recognize in light of last year's incident that we do not want the Seaholm student body to be viewed in this manner," Lancaster said. "It is very disappointing that someone would write this. It is very disappointing that one student would attempt to paint our students in this light."
Schuster said he's impressed with the way school administrators have responded to the incident, noting last year's administration (led by then-principal Terry Piper) wasn't as forthcoming with details.
"We knew what happened (this year) in the space of a few hours," Schuster said. "I think what they're trying to show is that the administration is aggressively trying to get to the bottom of this."
Cool to Care seeks to engage students throughout the district
Still, Resnick said many students he's talked to haven't been as interested in the note as they were last year. However, that's where Cool to Care comes in.
While the Birmingham Voice remains an organizing force in the school, Rosen said Cool to Care was created as a way to make the movement more accessible to students by giving them a specific task: talk to their classmates.
Two weeks ago, the group made its first trip to Pembroke Elementary, where they met with groups of students in grades K-5 and read books, played games and had an honest discussion about bullying.
"Wow," Rosen said. "I thought some of (the kids) wouldn't get it, but they totally understood. It was almost more insightful than it is with kids in high school."
Working with younger students is like working with blank slates, Rosen said, and the group is hoping dialogue like this at the lower levels makes a difference once the students reach high school.
"It's a chain reaction," she said. "If one kid would stand up, someone would see it."
"High school can be a culture of fear," she added. "Fear that you're going to step out and do something wrong. What we're trying to do is make students comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Birmingham Voice, and its Cool to Care counterpart, is already making waves. In 2011, the group received an honorable mention from the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. This year, they took home a Do The Right Thing Award from the Urban League of Detroit and Southeast Michigan. The group has also been nominated for the Race Relations and Diversity Task Force's annual honor roll celebration at The Community House.
Going forward, Resnick and Rosen said graduating this spring will be bittersweet as they leave Birmingham Voice and Cool to Care behind. But they're confident in the next generation of leaders, including sophomores Lea Lavigne, Joey Sheridan and Katie Rink.
Members of the Birmingham Voice have already visited the Birmingham Board of Education, voicing their concerns with the district's anti-bullying policy and urging the board to take a harder look at cyber bullying and loopholes with religious freedom.
Next year, Resnick and Rosen said they want to expand the Cool to Care program to more elementary schools across the district as well as make the visits more frequent, such as once or twice a month.
"I want (this group) to flourish and get larger," he said. "But more than anything, I want Seaholm to be a safer place."