Schoolmates at a Michigan high school taunted a Black high school student with racially charged insults, called her the N-word and made fun of her appearances, she came forward to say this month.
They bullied Tatayana Vanderlaan so harshly that she feared for her life and stopped attending classes, she says.
But according to a plea for help that 18-year-old posted on social media this month, school administrators at Hartland High School were aware of the harassment and they did nothing to hold her bullies responsible for the torment.
Vanderlaan enrolled at the school during her junior year. She’s now a senior preparing to graduate.
She shared her story on Facebook, saying the “terrible racism” she’d endured at Hartland Community Schools since December “have been the WORST months I’ve ever had to go through.”
One group of male classmates targeted Vanderlaan. They made a habit of arbitrarily video recording her and ordering her to pose for the camera. They asked how she felt about Black History Month and told her Black lives don’t matter. Some even told Vanderlaan that Black people “should go back to our plantation like our ancestors,” her post stated.
During one class, she said the problematic group began hurling derogatory slurs at her like “moon cricket,” “ugly Negro woman” and “n—-r.” The teens also made fun of Vanderlaan’s hair and mocked her appearance, she said. A teacher heard the taunts but did nothing to stop it, according to Vanderlaan.
The harassment got so bad that Vanderlaan said she began skipping virtually all of her classes for about three weeks.
“Because as a young Black woman in a school that is supposed to be ‘safe and stress free,’ I did not feel safe or comforting at all,” she explained.
On March 1, Vanderlaan said she got gussied up for her senior project presentation. She wore a fancy jumper, dress shoes and got her hair and makeup done “like the beauty queen I am.” But classmates told the teen she looked like she was she was going to a “Black person’s funeral.” Again they called her the N-word and hurled other insults at her like “wig girl.”
“I walked away as usual on my way into class trying to ignore these nasty, disgusting, heartless people,” Vanderlaan wrote. “Not only do I feel unsafe, but I feel heartbroken that a ‘safe’ community would allow this! It’s embarrassing.
“Race should never ever matter to anyone because at the end of the day we all bleed the same,” she added. “I’m sick and tired of being treated terribly because someone doesn’t like my skin color. It’s sad and sick. I truly feel for others that have had to go through this because it’s the worst thing to ever have to go through. And I’m tired of the harassment.”
The impassioned post quickly spread online and sparked outrage from the community.
James White, the civil rights commission’s director, said they will evaluate police at Hartland High and work with school administrators to end the abuse that Vanderlaan says she endured. They will also try to determine if there were any civil rights violations.
“I am very troubled by the reports of what this student has been facing for months,” White said in a statement. “At a time when she should be navigating the day-to-day challenges of high school, she has had to deal with this unacceptable situation. I applaud Tatayana for her bravery in bringing this situation forward.”
Vanderlaan also criticized the school district for its lack of diversity.
According to 7 Action News Detroit, Black children make up less than 1 percent of the Hartland Consolidated School District’s student makeup. More than 93 percent of the students and about 96 percent of the staff are white.
“One of her biggest things she says is that racism is taught,” said Travis Palmer, Vanderlaan’s 16-year-old best friend.
Students and alumni staged a rally in support of Vanderlaan outside a March 8 Board of Education meeting. One day after she took to Facebook to chronicle her abuse, school district Superintendent Chuck Hughes announced an investigation into the teen’s allegations. He said the district is investigating in conjunction with the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office, which is also reviewing Vanderlaan’s claims.
“I can only imagine what this young lady is feeling,” Hughes said while updating the school board. “I can only imagine the difficulty that this young lady has coming to school. What I can assure her and her family, and we will continue to assure, is that school will be a safe place for her.”
Rebecca Paris, a 20-year-old alumna who helped organize the March 8 demonstration, told Livingston Daily students wanted a formal apology from school officials. They also wanted a system implemented that allows them to have harassment reports addressed quickly.
“This isn’t an isolated incident,” Paris said. “There’s all kinds of harassment and discrimination that happens at our school that gets swept under the rug to the point that kids don’t report it. To see how bad it’s gotten since I graduated is very sad and unfortunate.”