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Opinion: A personal take on Watermelongate from a parent who feels a different kind of outrage

AMHS's Victim Complex

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Nobody wishes Academic Magnet's Watermelongate would go away more than me. My kid is a sophomore at AMHS. He played on the football team his freshman year. My husband announced a few football games this season. And we cheered their winning streak after watching them get beat down week after week last season.

The weekend before Watermelongate hit the media, we were privy to behind-the-scenes conversations among the sports families, and we were feeling a little bit of the same confusion. These kids weren't racists, so why was everyone acting like they were? But the more I reflected on the situation, and the more outraged and hysterical the rhetoric on both sides became, I believed that the kids and their coach should be held accountable. I also believed that the AMHS community should show some empathy and sensitivity to the situation.

Unfortunately, that hasn't happened publicly. While AMHS Principal Judith Peterson works at the school to turn this into the "teachable moment" that's so desperately needed, the public face of the school's community has been one of an outraged victim.

And we've now stepped even further into the theater of the absurd. The parents of three AMHS football players have filed suit against CCSD, the consulting firm that helped conduct the investigation of the incident, and the City Paper.

And why is the City Paper being singled out for reporting the same thing everyone else — including CNN, the Daily Kos, and The Post and Courier — reported based on the CCSD's investigation? Chris Haire, of course. Many AMHS students and parents took issue with what he wrote, because they didn't like that it made AMHS look bad as a community. But the sad truth is, Watermelongate made us all look very, very bad.

A few weeks ago, after what seemed like Haire's 57th blistering opinion piece on the subject, I received a phone call from a fellow AMHS parent admonishing me for allowing Chris Haire to keep writing such mean and hateful things about our students. First of all, I said, I am no longer working at the paper, even though I still retain my ownership stake, so I try my best to stay out of the fray. Second of all, this is personal for me too. My son had been taking all kinds of heat for what was being published by the City Paper. Fortunately — being the child of an editor — he's not afraid of debate and knows how to stand his ground.

But since I had this unsuspecting parent on the phone, I figured it was as good a time as any to give a piece of my mind on the whole incident. I said I was furious too — not at Haire, but at the AMHS community for its outrage. I felt embarrassed by it. How could we as an educated community not recognize and appreciate the problem with white kids smashing watermelons after games against black teams? And why shouldn't the defensive and dismissive Bud Walpole be held accountable? And why have we turned our kids into the victims in this situation? Why aren't we dragging them by the ears into a classroom to discuss the history of watermelons and race in America with some of the dedicated civil rights leaders we have in our own backyard? Unfortunately, the players and their classmates were sent the message by too many adults that the team did nothing wrong despite the fact that they did.

Needless to say, this parent didn't care much for my opinion, particularly when I blamed the outraged AMHS community for causing the ouster of Nancy McGinley, the single best superintendent we've had in Charleston County in the nearly two decades I've covered this town and its often-racist politics, particularly within the historically racist school district. Under McGinley's watch, CCSD has done more to rectify that shameful past than ever before.

I also made a point of criticizing the AMHS School Improvement Council for retaining lawyer Larry Kobrovsky in a situation fraught with race. Kobrovsky, you might remember, was the lawyer that sued Buist Academy for its diversity quota, which reserved 40 percent of the downtown magnet school's space for minority children. He won, of course, and Buist has never been as diverse as it once was. My son's class arrived in the second year after the lawsuit and had the fewest minorities of the entire school. Today, a smaller percentage is the norm.

In AMHS's online newspaper, a black student wrote an essay entitled "Sometimes a Watermelon Isn't Just a Watermelon" in which he made some salient points, the most stark of which was him being one of shamefully few black students: "Of the 644 students at Academic Magnet, I am one of our 15 African Americans. That's 2.3 percent. From my personal experience and perspective, I am very offended by the actions of some of my classmates. I find fault in their careless, thoughtless, and insensitive actions. Knowing most of them, I do not feel that any of them are racists and hate African Americans, but I do feel that because of the lack of diversity at the school, some of them are not fully able to realize the magnitude of their actions and why they are offensive."

It's not shocking that teenagers are unable to realize the magnitude of their actions, but it is absolutely heartbreaking that our school community as a whole has failed to teach them an important lesson about the world we live in. Instead, they've been turned into victims that should be defended — from the society that judged them, from the school administration that dared question their actions, and from Chris Haire, who chose to use their insensitivity and ignorance as a platform to discuss the sad state of race relations in our backward part of the world.

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