Racially charged photos of Baltimore private school students in Halloween costumes create stir online

Several elite Baltimore private schools were caught up in a social media firestorm over photos of students and alumni dressed in racially charged Halloween costumes.

One photo showed a graduate of Boys’ Latin School of Maryland dressed in an orange jumpsuit with the name “Freddie Gray” on the back. Gray died from injuries sustained in police custody in 2015, a case that has drawn national attention after rioting broke out in the city following his death.

Another photo, from a different party, depicts two teens dressed in orange jumpsuits with a racial slur in the caption. They were identified as students of the Gilman School and Roland Park Country School, in a joint statement from the schools.

That photo was taken and captioned by a student of Mount Saint Joseph High School, the Baltimore Catholic school said in a statement late Monday.

“Obviously, this sort of behavior cannot be tolerated, and we share in the hurt and dismay this action may have caused. We take all matters involving students seriously, and will determine how best to address the matter internally after further investigation,” said George E. Andrews Jr., the school’s president, in the statement.

In a letter to students’ families, Boys’ Latin Headmaster Christopher J. Post said he was “deeply troubled that an individual would choose to act in this way” and “so sorry for any hurt or pain that these actions have caused.”

“Boys’ Latin denounces the insensitivity and intolerance depicted by these images,” Post wrote. “In no way, shape or form will Boys’ Latin support or tolerate actions or behaviors that demean or belittle another person, a group of individuals, or the suffering that one may endure.”

Gilman and Roland Park administrators emphasized in a statement that the individuals who took the pictures, wrote captions on them and shared them online are not the students in the photos. They were taken at separate functions over the weekend and combined in a social media post, the schools said in a joint statement.

Still, administrators said they were taking the incident seriously and talking to both students and faculty about it.

“This situation has troubled and disappointed me deeply,” said Gilman Headmaster Henry P. A. Smyth in a letter to families. “As I said today to Upper School students, as well as to faculty and staff, all of us who have seen the photos posted online agree wholeheartedly that they express values and beliefs that run counter to the kind of community that we seek to build at Gilman, to the character of young men that we strive to educate, and to the type of world that we hope our graduates will help to build.”

Roland Park plans to bring in a Loyola University of Maryland associate professor of communication and African and African American studies, Kaye Whitehead, to talk to students about the incident and other social issues. The school is also working on developing teaching materials about cultural sensitivity and identity.

“We are intent on fully understanding the situation, taking accountability, healing our community and moving forward with the tools to get better,” Roland Park head of school Caroline Blatti said in a letter posted to the school’s website. “We are aware that this work is never done and we are committed to constantly working to move forward.”

The picture of the Boys’ Latin graduate wearing a jumpsuit with Freddie Gray’s name was taken at an off-campus party at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, according to the school.

The college’s division of student affairs and department of public safety are conducting a full investigation and will take appropriate action if the investigation concludes any students broke the school’s code of conduct or other policies, President Glenn McConnell said Monday in a campus-wide letter.

“Our education and our campus community are about lifting each other up, not tearing each other down,” McConnell wrote. “Racism and intolerance of any kind have no place on our campus — and in our world.”

The photos quickly spread online over the weekend, as members of the school community, local activists and others responded on Twitter and Facebook.

“Heartbroken. Disappointed. Frustrated,” former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake posted on Facebook. “It will undoubtedly be a rough day for my daughter tomorrow. Praying I find the words to help her make sense of this nonsense.”

Reached by phone Monday, Rawlings-Blake declined comment. Her daughter attends Roland Park Country School.

Activist Kwame Rose retweeted the images with a face-palm emoji and the message, “White high school student in Baltimore thought it was ok to dress up as #FreddieGray for Halloween...”

Rose could not be reached for comment Monday.

A parent of one of the students said the photos were taken out of context and given inappropriate captions.

“These are costumes that are widely available and the responsibility for this lies with the folks who misrepresented what went on,” the parent said. “These kids were just having fun at a Halloween party.”

The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the students because they are minors and allowed the parent to speak anonymously to protect the students’ identity.

An individual who took responsibility for sharing the photo of the Gilman and Roland Park students posted an apology on Twitter Sunday, saying they did not intend not intend to offend anyone. The photo’s caption, “N----- broke out,” is a lyric from an Ice T song that they said was playing at the time.

The individual, who is a minor, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Still, others said the costumes alone were racially insensitive.

“The truth is what creates the problem is that there’s not necessarily a recognition of the impact these costumes have on the groups they might offend,” said Sharon Hoover, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Any costume that is insensitive to an entire group of people or culture should be something we think about and that there’s discussion about.”

James Scott, a 1997 Gilman graduate and member of the school’s black alumni association, said he hopes the incident pushes all of the area’s private institutions to look closely at their campus culture and to talk to students about diversity.

Incidents like this, he said, are often the result of racial tensions boiled over.

“What it means to be the sole minority in a sea of upper middle class white people is tough,” said Scott, who is the director of admissions at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy. “Oftentimes in schools when things like that are brought up people dismiss the minority students’ claims as, ‘Oh, you’re over reacting’ or ‘Oh, that’s not racist.’ ”

With Halloween still to come on Tuesday, College of Charleston’s president urged students to think carefully about whether their costumes or party themes could be considered insensitive by others.

“If you have the slightest doubt if your costume/party theme is insensitive,” McConnell said, “be smart and don’t do it.”

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahgantz

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