School leaders praise the courage of Wake teen who exposed racist online comments

Wake County school leaders on Tuesday praised a 14-year-old high school student who publicly exposed a racist online group chat where other students talked about killing black people.

Cenayia Edwards, a freshman at East Wake High School in Wendell, posed as a white student to gain access to a group chat where two students at her school and five students at Corinth Holders High School in Johnston County made racial slurs and talked about shooting black people.

School board members and Superintendent Cathy Moore called Cenayia courageous and apologized that she had to experience the comments she uncovered. Cenayia and her family were at Tuesday’s board meeting to continue to raise their concerns about the incident.

“Thank you for standing up,” said school board chairman Jim Martin. “Your bravery is a testament to the entire community, and we’re on your team.”

The words fell short though for the family and its supporters, who called on the school system Tuesday to publicly reprimand East Wake High Principal Stacey Alston. The family says Alston has told them he’s not suspending any of the students.

“Someone has to hold him accountable,” Cecelia Edwards, Cenayia’s mother, told the school board. “If not him, who will hold them accountable?”

Alston was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. But he has previously condemned the remarks.

Cenayia said in late September she had been told by some white friends about disturbing comments made by students on a group chat. She decided to investigate by changing her avatar to a white face to gain access.

The chat included comments such as “#BringSlaveryBack” and discussion of killing black babies and “pulling triggers and shooting” black people. The comments repeatedly used the N-word.

Cecelia Edwards said that when her daughter complained on the chat, the response was to post an image of a penguin holding a gun along with the words “shut up” and the N-word.

Corderro Edwards, Cenayia’s father, read some of the comments to school board members.

“We will not stop until something is done,” he said. “We have to do something about this.”

Johnston County school officials have said that the Corinth Holders High principal “issued consequences,” but didn’t specify what specific disciplinary action was taken because of privacy laws.

Wake school officials have also cited privacy laws for saying that they can’t say whether disciplinary action was taken against the East Wake High students.

School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said that Wake had failed the family.

“We failed your daughter,” Johnson-Hostler said. “We failed our entire school district that’s been committed to changing the culture of who we want to be.”

School board members denounced the comments made on the chat.

“The conduct displayed by the students involved in the group chat is completely unacceptable and has no place in any school,” said school board vice chairman Keith Sutton. “The comments, remarks and conversations such as these only serve to inflame and divide our community. “

Wake has come under fire for practices such as holding community circles where students discuss their feelings. School board members defended the circles and teaching students about social justice, saying that the East Wake High incident showed why they’re necessary.

“Those standards of social justice: identity, diversity, justice in action are at the very core of the Constitution that we as a board are committed to uphold, and I believe that we are committed to uphold as a nation,” said Martin, the school board chairman.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.