by Amy Bartner, firstname.lastname@example.org
One week after a Russiaville high school student used a racial slur to describe an Indianapolis Colts cheerleader in a photo he posted to Snapchat, the two met in person.
The cheerleader, Leanna E., tweeted a photo Wednesday night showing her next to the 17-year-old Western High School senior during the meeting at the Colts complex. The text of the tweet: “A week ago I was the victim of a racial slur that was shared around the world. Today, I chose forgiveness & feel stronger because of it.”
“To receive the apology and be able to formally and officially forgive him and talk and be able to relate on things and find common ground, it was really comforting and helpful for us,” Leanna said Thursday in an interview with IndyStar. “I’m at peace with it.”
The student took a photo Dec. 14 of him and another student posing with Leanna and another Colts cheerleader at the Howard County high school during an event to celebrate the school’s participation in the Colts Leadership Challenge blood donation program with the Indiana Blood Center. The teen sent the Snapchat with the caption, “Of course (other student’s name) put me next to the (racial slur).” A screen grab of the photo was posted to Facebook and quickly went viral, shared more than 1,000 times.
The story drew international attention, and the student posted an apology on his Instagram account, which has since been deleted. But he had not directly apologized to Leanna.
In a conversation Tuesday with Western High School Principal Rick Davis, Leanna asked how the student was doing.
“I just was concerned for how he was handling it, and (Davis) said he wasn’t handling it well,” she said. “That broke my heart to know that.”
So Davis connected the two for the chance to meet face to face.
The student and his mother met Leanna and her coach in a conference room in the complex on the northwest side, and though Leanna extended a hand to shake, the teen greeted her with a hug and flowers.
“I extended my hand to shake, and he was like, ‘Come on, bring it in, bring it in.’ It was a good ice breaker,” she said. “He was pretty uncomfortable, which is understandable, but he got right to his apology. He said that he was a kid who made a mistake. He actually referred to himself as a dumb kid that messed up, and he said he was trying to be funny and wasn’t and that he made a mistake and he was sorry, very sorry for hurting me and others.”
His mother was extremely gracious, too, Leanna said.
“She was emotional and expressed her gratitude and her appreciation for me being so forgiving and me being willing to meet with them, and she immediately embraced me,” she said. “She said he wasn’t raised that way, that it was peer influence. He grew up in a Christian home, and he was taught better.”
The student has received physical threats and a very public response from thousands of people commenting online, and Leanna isn’t sure his offense is worth the vitriol he has received.
“I hope that people look at themselves and step back and realize everybody makes mistakes; nobody’s perfect,” she said. “I feel like there is so much good in Indiana, and the heart of the state is pure and good. That’s what I feel like draws people in. I would hate to think that somebody would read that story of this one student who’s made one mistake and categorize everybody in the state as being the same way, and if so, that’s just stupid.”
Leanna said she did not believe the student was racist. She was told the student and his friends have used the racial slur as sort of a term of endearment, Leanna said. Although she doesn’t understand it, she said she attributes some of that behavior to what she called the “Trump effect,” the surge of visibly racist behavior and imagery in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the presidential election.
“It has become acceptable, for some reason, to be racist or make racist comments, and I don’t really know why that is,” she said. “The leaders of the nation are making these mistakes, and it’s seeming OK. It’s not that surprising that these kids would make the same mistakes. That generation, that age group, they need a lot of help, a lot of guidance. They’ve grown up with phones and technology at their fingertips, and I don’t think they have the mental and physiological capacity to fully understand the precautions they should take with the internet and with the future.”
Leanna is looking forward to moving forward, and although she didn’t expect her cheerleading career to head in this direction, she is thankful she was put in this position. Davis and the Colts organization is planning to create an educational program from this experience, she said, and she will be heavily involved.
“If it has to be somebody, I’m glad that it could be me,” she said. “We’re trying to make something positive out of this. I’m able to show more people that there’s a different way than just hate.”