At a heated news conference Monday, the Bethlehem NAACP called for the removal of inappropriate avatars some Southern Lehigh School District students are using in Google Classroom.
The news conference, held in the parking lot of Southern Lehigh Middle School, was organized by the Bethlehem NAACP about students using Black avatars with exaggerated facial features from the video game Fortnite. The avatars are visible in the image that is next to a student’s name on Google Classroom, an online site used for school communication.
“The issues of these images is that, ‘We’re not racist,’ ” Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee said. “There’s no such thing as just a cartoon. It’s a feeling, and it comes from inside, and I reject that, and parents should, too.”
Kristen Bruck, a district parent, said other middle school parents contacted her about inappropriate avatars being displayed by students online.
Bruck said by her count about a dozen students from the middle school use the offensive avatars.
“People are coming to me and saying, ‘I’m really uncomfortable with these avatars that are in there. Can you take a look?’ ” Bruck said. “And so I did.”
Bruck reached out to the NAACP to ask for Lee’s opinion on whether the images were offensive.
“I certainly don’t blame the kids,” Bruck said. “They’re kids, so if this is a teachable moment to explain to them, ‘Here’s why you shouldn’t be using this kind of avatar,’ I think that’s worthwhile.”
Nearly three weeks ago, Bruck contacted the middle school about the avatars, she said. Bruck said she was told school leaders would look into the situation and work with Google to view all student images. As of Monday, the avatars were still active on Google Classroom.
“With respect to any issue that involves students, the district of course would not be prepared to discuss those circumstances,” Superintendent Michael Mahon said when asked about the avatars.
Mahon said the district was not contacted by the Bethlehem NAACP about the news conference, nor about any concerns the organization has regarding student avatars. However, he said “to the extent that they have any concerns, we’re always happy to engage.”
About a dozen parents and students gathered in the school parking lot Monday afternoon.
“The issue is, ‘Are they racially motivated, these avatars?’ ” said Doug Durham, a district parent and president of the parent group, Southern Lehigh Grassroots. “My son has an avatar for Fortnite. It’s a female with red hair, so it doesn’t represent him. I didn’t think avatars were necessarily representative of who you were.”
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The news conference grew heated as some parents argued about LGBT and race issues and the meaning of a sign recently created by Bruck that reads: “You Belong. you matter We Are All Southern Lehigh.”
Bruck had placed the signs around the school community, and some teachers displayed the sign in their classrooms, she said, prompting a debate within the district about the need for a specific sign policy.
At the news conference Monday, parents argued whether the sign was partisan, and some opponents brought their own version of signs aimed at inclusion as a replacement for the one created by Bruck.
Some parents have called Bruck’s signs political. Bruck disagreed, saying she made her sign with positive intentions, and she has been surprised by the backlash.
“I think it’s just really showing we have an issue in this district when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Bruck said.
Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.