Online threat of racial violence shuts down all schools in Charlottesville, Virginia

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee stands at Emancipation Park, on Aug 10, 2018, near downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. The threat was another jolt to a community still strained by the deadly white-supremacy Unite the Right rally in August 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Public school campuses in Charlottesville, Virginia, will be shuttered on Friday (March 22) for a second straight day - and more than 4,300 students will be kept out of classrooms - after a threat of racial violence surfaced online.

In a message to families, Ms Rosa Atkins, superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, said an investigation involving state and federal authorities remains active, necessitating the unusual step of keeping schools closed.

"We would like to acknowledge and condemn the fact that this threat was racially charged. We do not tolerate hate or racism," Ms Atkins said.

"The entire staff and School Board stand in solidarity with our students of colour - and with people who have been singled out for reasons such as religion or ethnicity or sexual identity in other vile threats made across the country or around the world.

"We are in this together, and a threat against one is a threat against all."

Police said in a statement that the online threat was directed at Charlottesville High School.

The authorities declined to further describe the threat, but images circulating on Reddit and other social media sites referred to a post on 4chan, an anonymous online messaging board.

The post included a racist meme, used slurs for blacks and Latinos, and threatened to attack students of colour at Charlottesville High.

Charlottesville police spokesman Tyler Hawn said the decision to close an entire school system was done as a precaution.

Police told school board members about the threat on Wednesday afternoon, said Ms Jennifer McKeever, the board's chairman. She said the school system decided to close the city's nine schools out of an "abundance of caution" to allow law enforcement to investigate.

"We just didn't have any additional information, and it was clear that we were not going to get any additional information," she said. "As laypeople, we could not determine the credibility of the threat."

The threat was another jolt to a community still strained by the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017 that turned Charlottesville into the site of America's largest white-supremacy gathering in decades.

This week's online episode did not surprise members of Charlottesville High's Black Student Union, who say it is symptomatic of persistent issues in Charlottesville schools, including excessive police presence in schools and a lack of black students in advanced classes.

"We're still allowing this kind of racism in our school," said Ms Althea Laughon-Worrell, an 18-year-old who attends Charlottesville High School.

"It's making it seem like it's OK for whoever posted that to say that, to feel that way... it is because of racism, and because we haven't dealt with this, that this person decided to post this."

Ms Zyahna Bryant, president of the Black Student Union, has called on the community to reckon with white supremacy in the aftermath of the 2017 rally and confront gentrification and the paucity of affordable housing in the city.

Ms Bryant, 18, wants the latest episode to encourage community members to grapple with racial inequities in the school system.

"There needs to be a real conversation about how students of colour are being supported," she said.

"It is dangerous to continue to categorise racism as just person-to-person experiences without calling attention to the systems that work to uphold and enforce racist policies."

The Charlottesville episode stoked further scrutiny of the way social media is used to perpetuate hateful rhetoric and violence, drawing parallels to the use of social media to broadcast a massacre at mosques in New Zealand last week.

Mr Doron Ezickson, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that the Charlottesville threat offered further evidence that social media is partly responsible for elevating extremist ideas.

It was, he said, another "frightening development for a city that is still healing from the traumatic and lingering experience" of the rally that brought hundreds of white supremacists into the town of 50,000 residents.

Ms Margaret Matthews, a Charlottesville resident who has grandchildren in city schools, said the rally emboldened white supremacists and its fallout continues to disrupt the city.

After the school system announced it would close on Thursday, Ms Matthews said parents began asking themselves: "What do we tell our kids?"

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