On Tuesday, Isle of Wight Academy, in Virginia, announced that three students were disciplined for a video the group made in which one girl is depicted wearing blackface. Created for a class project, they sought to re-enact a scene from the 1961 Supreme Court case Mapp v. Ohio, in which authorities broke into a black woman’s apartment after she first denied them from entering without a search warrant.
The school told the local paper, The Daily Press, that the students were disciplined “immediately” following the presentation of the video. "Isle of Wight Academy in no way condones the actions of the students involved in the making of the video," Headmaster Benjamin Vaughan said in a statement sent to the paper. "Isle of Wight Academy is a school that welcomes people of all races into its family."
But according to multiple students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared the repercussions of speaking out in an environment described as “tense," the school had been aware of the video for weeks, and they believe it only sought to reprimand the students involved after the video was sent to a popular blogger who posted screenshots and a clip of the video on Twitter.
Students described a school culture in which those opposing the video represent a small minority and face backlash from their peers—in the form of idle gossip, perpetrated on social media, and intimidation. The students said a vocal majority of the school support the students who filmed the video and direct their anger at those who expressed discomfort at the presence of a white girl screaming in blackface.
“It's not surprising it happened,” one student told me.
On February 29, 2016, about two dozen students gathered in a senior government class at Isle of Wight Academy—a small, private pre-K–12 school in rural Virginia, about 90 minutes southeast of the capital in Richmond—to watch project presentations. The students had been assigned to make a “re-creation of one of the landmark cases of the Supreme Court” and to make it “into a mock news broadcast or another relevant show,” according to a copy of the project’s instructions provided to Fusion by a student.
The first handful of videos were funny, and left the class in good spirits. But one presented later that day, a video re-enacting 1961’s Mapp vs. Ohio decision, did not.
The second half of the video (obtained in full by Fusion from a student at the school) showed a white student wearing blackface and screaming in an affected dialect. “They took away my rights and now I’m free! I’m free!” the girl in blackface yells as she runs past the camera. A bloopers section at the end of the clip shows them laughing at the girl’s impersonation of Dollree Mapp.
Some of the class expressed immediate shock, students told me, thinking they saw someone wearing blackface. The teacher buried his face in his hands. Most, however, looked on as if it were just another video.
What happened next depends on who you ask.
According to school officials, the students involved in the video apologized for their participation in the video “immediately” and were swiftly disciplined; students Fusion spoke with, however, say that version of the story is untrue.
When the video finished, according to those students, the teacher stumbled over his words, struggling for a response. Later, he pulled the video’s creators to the side of the classroom, and told them they needed to delete the video immediately or potentially risk significant consequences to their future.
But less than an hour later, students said, one member of the group had shared the video with multiple people. By the end of the day, most of the senior class had seen the clip.
For weeks, they tell me, school officials said nothing.
Then, on Thursday, March 17, nearly three weeks after the video was originally shown, Isle of Wight Academy’s Headmaster Benjamin Vaughan received an email from James Madison University, who recently extended an acceptance letter to one of the girls in the blackface video. Attached in the email, a student told me, was a link to the clip.
Following that email, students tell me, the school launched on an investigation to see who leaked the video to the outside public. It involved teachers pulling students out of class and asking them if they were responsible, or if they knew who might be, students said.
On Monday night, Alexis Isabel (@lexi4prez)—who identifies herself as the creator of the blog Feminist Culture and as a contributor to MTV—made the issue public, posting screenshots and clips from the video to her more than 80,000 followers.
By Tuesday morning, local news was on the steps of the school. Twenty-three days after the video was originally shown in class, the school administration announced the girls had been disciplined. The extent of the discipline is unknown: Benjamin Vaughan, the headmaster, said privacy concerns prevented him from disclosing. But according to students at the school, the three girls in the video are still attending classes.
The Isle of Wight Academy sits in the middle of Isle of Wight County, less than an hour drive to the North Carolina border. A population of 35,000 is spread out over 316 square miles; the largest town, Smithfield, has a of population just over 8,000.
At nearby Smithfield High School, a public school, the most recent available data shows the school is just over 60% white; Isle of Wight Academy is 94% white. For upper school (grades 8–12), tuition costs a family $6,300 a year. According to the latest available statistics, 611 students attended Isle of Wight during the 2013–14 school year; 48 were seniors.
A thread of racial discrimination runs through the history of Isle of Wight Academy. It first formed in 1967 as a response to Brown vs. Board of Education, serving as a place where white families could send their children to a segregated school, and away from black people. In the 1980s, the school lost its federal tax exemption for a year for discriminating against black students.
"We would like to have more black students but it's hard to attract them," headmaster Dan Deaton said in 1989.
A lack of sensitivity to diversity, students say, is evident. The student who wore blackface spoke to a local news station, and defended her actions by saying, “We did the blackface to be historically accurate. Ms. Mapp was African-American and we wanted to be accurate.”
One of the girls in the video appeared to release a lengthy, conciliatory statement about the video on Twitter in response to Isabel's tweet. "None of us had heard the term 'blackface' prior to this video. It was not taught in our school," the statement read.
This mirrors a common sentiment Isle of Wight students are expressing on social media—that any sort of punishment is a concession to political correctness, and that the intentions of the video’s participants were pure.
Why ruin someone's whole future over something so small
— kendall (@_kendaalll) March 22, 2016
“The whole grade had a sort of rift torn separating it into two sides; the majority being the ones who are fine with the video, and the minority being the ones are against it,” one student told me. “The ones who are fine with it are constantly saying how it's not racist and ‘people nowadays just get so offended.’"
In any case, students say it’s a "tense" environment for those who find the video offensive. In one classroom, a teacher has taken to posting quotes on the board every day (from God, the Bible, the actor Sylvester Stallone), implying those who shared the video outside of school should consider the consequences of their actions.
When asked to comment Tuesday, the school and its headmaster provided Fusion with the same statement given to local news outlets.
“The school still didn't punish them, but made [those in the video] out to be the victims,” one student told me. “[Their approach] was never, like, ‘This is really bad what you did.’”
Additional reporting by Patrick Hogan
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.