In one sense, the public shaming of Ms. Groves underscores the power of social media to hold people of all ages accountable, with consequences at times including harassment and both online and real-world “cancellation.” But the story behind the backlash also reveals a more complex portrait of behavior that for generations had gone unchecked in schools in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, where Black students said they had long been subjected to ridicule. “Go pick cotton,” some said they were told in class by white students.
“It was just always very uncomfortable being Black in the classroom,” said Muna Barry, a Black student who graduated with Ms. Groves and Mr. Galligan. Once during Black History Month, she recalled, gym teachers at her elementary school organized an “Underground Railroad” game, where students were told to run through an obstacle course in the dark. They had to begin again if they made noise.
The use of the slur by a Heritage High School student was not shocking, many said. The surprise, instead, was that Ms. Groves was being punished for behavior that had long been tolerated.
A ‘hostile learning environment’
Leesburg, the county seat of Loudoun County, lies just across the Potomac River from Maryland, about an hour’s drive from Washington. It was the site of an early Civil War battle, and slave auctions were once held on the courthouse grounds, where a statue of a Confederate soldier stood for more than a century until it was removed in July.
The Loudoun County suburbs are among the wealthiest in the nation, and the schools consistently rank among the top in the state. Last fall, according to the Virginia Department of Education, the student body at Heritage High was about half white, 20 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian-American and 8 percent Black, with another 6 percent who are mixed race.
In interviews, current and former students of color described an environment rife with racial insensitivity, including casual uses of slurs.
A report commissioned last year by the school district documented a pattern of school leaders ignoring the widespread use of racial slurs by both students and teachers, fostering a “growing sense of despair” among students of color, some of whom faced disproportionate disciplinary measures compared with white students.