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Saline Goes Global: a Racist reality The Saline Community is amidst a perplexing situation after racist comments in a student group chat were exposed. A global spotlight shines on Saline, and now many others are finding the courage to speak.

By Dan Gutenberg and Tai Tworek

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Dru Campbell hasn't gone a week without facing racism.

Campbell has gone to Saline Public Schools for 17 years; he’s faced ignorant remarks, stereotypes, prejudice and blatant racism from his peers at school. Some days he doesn’t talk to anyone after racist incidents occur. Yet, through his hardships, one of his only choices is to assimilate with his classmates. Sometimes he has to brush off the remarks he receives, only displaying his emotions when he’s away from school.

This is not a new problem for Campbell and some of his peers––it was just always seemingly swept under the rug.

“I’m mixed,” Campbell said. “I’m very out of place on either side of the race spectrum, but you just deal with it more or less. You find the people who aren’t going to [say racist remarks to you] on the daily, and you just kind of go with it. You listen to what other people say, and sometimes you gotta shake it off. And when it gets too much, you don’t show it until you get home.”

But now a dialogue centered around race and diversity has come to light in Saline, Mich. after a group chat was created by certain white Saline High School students. According to MLive, they created a group on Snapchat with their black football teammates, repeatedly saying racist slurs. The language in the chat also read “THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN” and “WHITE POWER.” After the black students who were targeted in the group chat screen-recorded the messages and turned them into administration, the white students were suspended, two of whom were recommended for expulsion. The four students who were victims of the incident have filed a lawsuit against the school in the U.S. District Court in Detroit. Although Saline High School has released statements surrounding the incidents, they have declined to an interview to comment further on the situation.

“It’s made me look at my classmates a different way,” Campbell said. “I thought I knew these kids because I played football, I played all of this with them. I was so close to these kids, and now looking at my classmates, I’m not that close with you and I don’t know what your intentions are, that sort of thing. It’s kind of changed my outlook on everybody.”

In response to this incident, Saline residents gathered at Liberty School on Feb. 3, to discuss the overwhelming issues surrounding diversity and inclusion facing the Saline community and its school system. The purpose of the forum was for parents to seek answers from leaders on what was being done for their kids. Parents shared the experiences of their own children in the Saline Area Schools system, highlighting the neglected narrative of the racial climate in Saline.

But when Adrian Iraola, a Mexican American immigrant and father of children who graduated from Saline High School more than 10 years ago began speaking on the racist attacks his kids had endured in the school system, he was interrupted.

The man behind him, Tom Burtell, interjected: “Why didn’t you stay in Mexico?” Burtell questioned. The switch flipped.

The racist comment toward Iraola strongly provoked the audience, and community members reprimanded Burtell for his response. Audible gasps and shouting escalated then escalated the meeting.

Burtell continued, comparing the experiences that members of marginalized communities face with walking down a black neighborhood as a white man. He also claimed that what was done over social media didn’t actually hurt anyone.

“You’re complaining about situations and this incident where somebody made a little tweet,” Brutell said. “Nobody got hurt in that, and that was done off campus. That doesn’t concern the school system. Everybody has a right to free speech.”

The exchange between Iraola and Burtell gained global attention after being captured on a video taken by MLive. Iraola came to the forum with two specific goals in mind: to support the children and students, and to shed light on a recurring situation. His children have since graduated from the Saline Area Schools System, but their stories are similar to those of others from marginalized communities.

After the publicity from the video, the responses Iraola has since received have varied. Iraola is the successful owner of Chela’s Restaurant in Ann Arbor, and he has had strangers wait for him in his restaurants expressing their solidarity and support; people have even driven from the Detroit area to contribute to his business. Young elementary students and senior citizens have also cried in front of him while discussing the harassment, ignorance and bullying. Since the virality of the video, Iraola has had to be a secure shoulder to cry on and a strong hand to shake.

“By Wednesday, my tears were dry because I cried so much with so many people,” Iraola said.

But he has also received hate speech and more negative comments. The anonymity of social media has allowed people to send him and his family daunting threats. He has received messages with the addresses of each of his restaurants, the location of his daughter’s job and violent threats against each of those places. Comments like Burtell’s are not uncommon for Iraola, but when he first immigrated to the United States almost 40 years ago, he found that residents were much more welcoming. In the last three years, Iraola has noticed far more harassment than the previous 37 combined.

“You can find disputes in every nation, in every culture,” Iraola said. “America is very dived right now. We need to find common ground; we need to reach out and accept each other. And more importantly, respect each other and protect our children. If we can’t protect our children, we’re doomed.”

Even though it has been over 10 years since his youngest child graduated from Saline High School, Iraola knew the importance of showing up to the Feb. 3 meeting. First, he and his wife decided that it was time to express their support to those hurt in the recent incident, and second, it was important for them to let the administration know that these racist occurrences were not a new problem. And on a broader scale, Iraola believes the viral nature of his story is because these incidents are not just unique to Saline.

But now, in the aftermath of what has happened, a city with a white supermajority faces the predetermined eyes of outsiders, labelling their town to be racist.

The viral comment in the meeting on Monday led to a rally in downtown Saline bringing hundreds out in support, and many residents also felt they needed their stories told –– and their voices heard. Following this request, a “listening session” was held at Saline City Hall on Feb. 9. The session was hosted by three elected officials: Cedric Simpson, the Washtenaw County 14A District Court Judge; Shannon Beemon, the County Commissioner of district 3; and Felicia Brabec, the County Commissioner of district 4.

The listening session was held to provide a safe space for anyone to voice their stories, experiences or concerns to their representatives, and everyone in the jam-packed city council room came to do exactly that. While there was an abundance of people who came to share their thoughts on the current racial climate, once again, Saline’s overwhelming white population was apparent.

“When I walked in the room today, I was very uncomfortable because I know there are a couple of black faces here, but I recognize only one,” said Aramide Piuheivo-Boatswain, a black mother of three kids in Saline Area Schools. “My husband and I appreciate that people recognize that this is an issue now; I’m frustrated and saddened that it took a Snapchat conversation for people to understand that this has been going on since my kid was in kindergarten.”

The one face Piuheivo-Boatswain recognized, Channon Washington, also told her story. Washington explained how she taught in Rochester Schools, and she was the only black teacher in a building of about 1,700 students. This led to her beginning to train teachers and start diversity work. After learning of an incident in which a student called her friend’s son the N-word in school, Washington joined the Saline Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee. It was the panic Washington could sense in her voice that encouraged her to get involved and help.

"I’m frustrated and saddened that it took a Snapchat conversation for people to understand that this has been going on since my kid was in kindergarten.”

John Fisher, a wrestling coach and teacher from Ann Arbor, spoke about why he showed up despite not living in Saline.

“When I heard what happened, it shocked me,” Fisher said. “And I'm here really for my mother. She passed away five years ago from breast cancer and was a very influential person in my life. She told me about her growing up in a school where there weren't many minorities and the way she was treated. And all this was in the ‘60s, and how students treated her or how staff members treated her. And hearing about this was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it’s still happening.”

As a teacher, Fisher then decided to ask a question very important to him; he asked how many Saline teachers were in the room. Zero hands were raised.

“That’s shocking to me,” Fisher said. “It didn’t happen in my school, and I'm here. You know, it's just sad to see that black and brown skin students have to tolerate stuff like this.”

According to the U.S. Census’ 2018 ACS 5-Year Estimate, Saline is 94.2% white. Iraola credits the ethnic ignorance to the lack of exposure of different cultures. Prior to moving to Saline, he was forewarned about the lack of diversity in the town –– a common concern that was expressed by certain community members at the listening session.

As discussed by Saline residents, the recent incidents surrounding the group chat are not new issues –– they are underlying problems buried by a predominantly white population. The stories of marginalized communities and people of color are each unique, yet they have similar endings of inaction from the school. Saline is still trying to figure out how to move forward.