Social Media

Your Mascot's Been Captured With a Racial Slur
By KEVIN R. FITZGERALD/School Administrator, October 2019

“MY MASCOT did what?”

I had just left the high school after taking part in a community roundtable in October 2017 and now the principal was calling me. She had just received a text message alerting her that a photo involving our oversized school mascot had been circulating on Twitter. Without much difficulty, she found the post.

Our family-friendly mascot, depicting a character from the American Revolution, was photographed holding up a racially insensitive message. My mind began racing. How could this happen? Could the image on social media have been produced through Photoshop? Who had access to the costume?

I turned around and drove back to the school, where I viewed the post for the first time. I felt sick. After alerting the school board and the school resource officer, my attention turned to the legitimacy of the photo. I couldn’t stop the offensive image from circulating on social media so I knew the school district’s response would be critical.

Disappointing news came quickly from the state police. A member of our mascot team must have been involved. While the principal compiled a list of students who recently had access to the costume, I had to decide whether to notify parents at a late hour on a Wednesday night or wait until the next morning.

Realizing the photo was sure to be the topic of conversation in school hallways, in our community and throughout every social media platform the next day, I released a robo-call at 9:30 p.m. to more than 9,000 homes. My message was one of disappointment and shock, along with assurance that the racial slur in the post did not represent who we are. I didn’t sleep that night.

Explosive Reactions
With the morning came the hundreds of phone calls and the e-mails — bearing concern, support or rage. We put out a press release about the district’s position and contacted community leaders. The school principal spoke to our student leaders to gauge if they believed the post was indicative of a greater problem.

The local news media exploited the issue, as did those with personal agendas. We became a target for those on the fringes of social media. But as the offensive post and our response circulated, support for the district and the way we handled the issue began to emerge. Within days, the police and school administration identified those believed to be responsible for the photo and post.

Over ensuing weeks, we scheduled meetings to address concerns with parent and community groups. We held student assemblies at the secondary level and had classroom conversations at both the elementary and secondary level and conducted professional development on racial sensitivity for staff.

Two years later, I can admit the incident damaged our façade, but our foundation remained strong enough to withstand the battering. Like every superintendent, I never believed this could happen at my high school.

The crisis tested my team’s ability to respond quickly in crisis. It also showed the importance of developing relationships and establishing credibility. The combination of both allowed us to deal with an explosive issue.

Painful Lessons
As superintendent, I learned a few lessons from the painful experience:

» All of us are just one misguided social media post away from a crisis.

» Notify your school board immediately. Don’t wait until they hear it from someone else.

» Communicate with law enforcement.

» Control the message by getting it out as soon as possible. Keep everyone informed.

» Beware of internet trolls. Don’t feed the monster by responding.

» Realize people will bring up issues to take advantage of your perceived weakness. Stay strong.  

» Develop a strong social media policy.  

» Use the relationships you’ve built over the years for support.

» Remember, a photo posted to social media never goes away. Repair, rebuild and prepare for the next time.

KEVIN FITZGERALD is superintendent of Caesar Rodney School District in Wyoming, Del. Twitter: @kfitz100