Student charged with ethnic intimidation for racist threat

By: Erin McClary | Online Only | Published May 18, 2011

A black Seaholm High School student is facing two years in jail for allegedly writing a racially charged message on a bathroom wall at his school last month, suggesting a handful of fellow black students be lynched.

Courtney Thomas, a Birmingham resident, was arraigned in 48th District Court in Bloomfield Township May 18 on charges of ethnic intimidation, a two-year felony. Thomas, 18, supposedly admitted to the racist graffiti May 11, after an investigation pointed to him as being responsible.

His attorney, Wendy Barnwell, had no comment about Thomas’ case. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf.

Thomas’ alleged admission May 11 followed a rash of nasty messages left around Seaholm over the past several weeks. The incident he admitted to, which was found in a boys bathroom at the school April 20, was the only message that involved a threat.

The graffiti apparently listed the names of five black students at the school and indicated harm.

“It was threatening — basically said they’re going to be lynched. We take that as a direct threat,” said Birmingham Police Cmdr. Terry Kiernan. “The rest were racial, not threatening. There’s difference when there’s a direct threat.”

On April 21, a black teacher at Seaholm found a racially derogatory note in her mailbox. A few days later, two black students found similar notes in their lockers. On May 6, another message was found in a boy’s bathroom stall that included the date “May 12,” as well as “ni---rs ruin seaholm.”

Seaholm Principal Terry Piper alerted parents to the matter in an email blast. The “May 12” message, he said, did not include a threat, but it did raise concern because a date was named.

On May 11, more racist graffiti was discovered, also in a boys bathroom. The school arranged for Birmingham police to be on guard at the school the morning of May 12 as a precaution.

Upon admission of the April 20 graffiti, Thomas was suspended indefinitely, said Marcia Wilkinson, director of community relations for Birmingham Public Schools.

As far as the incident stands now, however, Wilkinson had no comment. “We would not have a comment because it’s an ongoing legal matter.”

Kiernan said Thomas is not allowed back at Seaholm. While he will be allowed to graduate, he’s won’t be allowed to participate in senior commencements. The teen doesn’t have a criminal record.

Thomas was one of roughly 70 black students at the high school. Seaholm has a student population of 1,250, said Wilkinson.

Fellow students and administrators have not taken any of this lightly.

On May 2, a group of Seaholm students organized and held an all-school assembly to address respect around the school. The evening of May 6, the student group held a candlelight vigil at Maple Field with regard to the racist incidents.

Administrators have held two meetings recently on the issue of racism at the school. Parents and members of the African American Family Network and Seaholm Parent-Teacher-Student Association were invited to the second on May 11, where Piper said administrators provided an update and review of what students have done and how they “have planned to unite around a spirit of tolerance and respect.”

No other students have come forward with regard to the other incidents. Kiernan said investigators are not sure if one student or group is responsible for the incidents that followed Thomas’ message, or whether they were carried out in a copycat fashion.

Regardless, Kiernan said, “This kid was the catalyst.”

Thomas was out on a $10,000 personal bond. His pre-exam hearing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. May 24.

“We want every student at Seaholm to feel safe and welcome. This type of behavior is counter to what we believe in and what we are about,” Piper wrote in an email following discovery of the April 20 message. “As you discuss this incident with your son/daughter, please encourage him/her to come forward with any information that may assist us in our investigation.”

Anyone with information about any of the incidents is asked to call Seaholm’s tip line at (248) 203-3737.