LEESBURG, Va. — Jimmy Galligan was in history class last school year when his phone buzzed with a message. Once he clicked on it, he found a three-second video of a white classmate looking into the camera and uttering an anti-Black racial slur.
The slur, he said, was regularly hurled in classrooms and hallways throughout his years in the Loudoun County school district. He had brought the issue up to teachers and administrators but, much to his anger and frustration, his complaints had gone nowhere.
So he held on to the video, which was sent to him by a friend, and made a decision that would ricochet across Leesburg, Va., a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and whose school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.
“I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word,” Mr. Galligan, 18, whose mother is Black and father is white, said of the classmate who uttered the slur, Mimi Groves. He tucked the video away, deciding to post it publicly when the time was right.
Ms. Groves had originally sent the video, in which she looked into the camera and said, “I can drive,” followed by the slur, to a friend on Snapchat in 2016, when she was a freshman and had just gotten her learner’s permit. It later circulated among some students at Heritage High School, which she and Mr. Galligan attended, but did not cause much of a stir.
Mr. Galligan had not seen the video before receiving it last school year, when he and Ms. Groves were seniors. By then, she was a varsity cheer captain who dreamed of attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, whose cheer team was the reigning national champion. When she made the team in May, her parents celebrated with a cake and orange balloons, the university’s official color.
The next month, as protests were sweeping the nation after the police killing of George Floyd, Ms. Groves, in a public Instagram post, urged people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word,” responded someone whom Ms. Groves said she did not know.
Her alarm at the stranger’s comment turned to panic as friends began calling, directing her to the source of a brewing social media furor. Mr. Galligan, who had waited until Ms. Groves had chosen a college, had publicly posted the video that afternoon. Within hours, it had been shared to Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, where furious calls mounted for the University of Tennessee to revoke its admission offer.
By that June evening, about a week after Mr. Floyd’s killing, teenagers across the country had begun leveraging social media to call out their peers for racist behavior. Some students set up anonymous pages on Instagram devoted to holding classmates accountable, including in Loudoun County.
The consequences were swift. Over the next two days, Ms. Groves was removed from the university’s cheer team. She then withdrew from the school under pressure from admissions officials, who told her they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from outraged alumni, students and the public.
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.
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.
Mr. Galligan recalled being mocked with a racial slur by students and getting laughed at by a white classmate after their senior-year English teacher played an audio recording of the 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness” that contained the slur.
During that school year, Mr. Galligan said, the same student made threatening comments about Muslims in an Instagram video. Mr. Galligan showed the clip to the school principal, who declined to take action, citing free speech and the fact that the offensive behavior took place outside school. “I just felt so hopeless,” Mr. Galligan recalled.
For the University of Tennessee, the outrage over Ms. Groves followed a string of negative publicity over racist incidents at its flagship campus in Knoxville. Last year, Snapchat photos of students wearing blackface and mocking the Black Lives Matter movement went viral, shortly after a student was suspended by her sorority for referring to Black people with a racial slur in an online video. In 2018, swastikas and other hateful messages were painted on campus, months after white supremacists hosted an event during Black History Month.
Public universities are limited in their ability to expel students for offensive language. They have more leeway with incoming students, who are not yet enrolled, though many state schools try to avoid officially revoking admissions offers over speech issues.
The day after the video went viral, Ms. Groves tried to defend herself in tense calls with the university. But the athletics department swiftly removed Ms. Groves from the cheer team. And then came the call in which admissions officials began trying to persuade her to withdraw, saying they feared she would not feel comfortable on campus.
Ms. Groves’s parents, who said their daughter was being targeted by a social media “mob” for a mistake she made as an adolescent, urged university officials to assess her character by speaking with her high school and cheer coaches. Instead, admissions officials gave her an ultimatum: withdraw or the university would rescind her offer of admission.
In the months since Mr. Galligan posted the video, he has begun his freshman year at Vanguard University in California and Ms. Groves has enrolled in online classes at a nearby community college. Though they had been friendly earlier in high school, they have not spoken about the video or the fallout.
At home, Ms. Groves’s bedroom is festooned by a collection of cheer trophies, medals and a set of red pompoms — reminders of what could have been. Her despair has given way to resignation. “I’ve learned how quickly social media can take something they know very little about, twist the truth and potentially ruin somebody’s life,” she said.
For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.
“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”
Source: NY Times