St. Albans Family Frustrated After School Investigation Into Racist Meme Sputters | Off Message

St. Albans Family Frustrated After School Investigation Into Racist Meme Sputters


Bellows Free Academy St. Albans - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Bellows Free Academy St. Albans

Kaylee Mckenzie was eating lunch in the cafeteria at Bellows Free Academy St. Albans on September 17 when she received a notification on her phone that someone wanted to AirDrop her an image.

The message was coming from an iPhone with no name attached. Kaylee accepted, and a racist meme popped up on her screen. It showed a photograph of three hooded Ku Klux Klan members with the words, “3 K’s a day keeps the n—-ers away.” 

Kaylee, whose mother is white and father is Black, deleted the image. But a friend and an older sister, who she immediately asked for advice, told her it sounded like a hate crime and that she should report it.

After recovering the image, Kaylee did — but the perpetrator still hasn't been caught. Now two weeks after the traumatic incident, Kaylee and her mother, Heather Mckenzie, say the school mishandled the investigation and didn't provide the high school senior the support she needed in the aftermath.

“Where was the guidance counselor or the [mental health] clinician? Nobody checked on her mental health. Nothing,” Mckenzie said. “If she was a white kid, would they have done all of that?”

Kaylee, who is one of only a small number of Black students at the school, reported what had happened to dean of students Matt Bloom that day, at which time they took her phone to the school’s information technology specialist. He spent close to an hour trying unsuccessfully to determine who sent the image, Kaylee said.

Both Bloom and principal Brett Blanchard told Kaylee they were sorry about what had happened and that they would do everything they could to find the culprit. Blanchard also called Kaylee’s parents and told them they were narrowing down possible suspects and were treating the incident as a hate crime.

The following week, Blanchard called Mckenzie again to say that school resource officer Cpl. Kristine Koch — a member of the St. Albans Police Department who is assigned to the school — would get involved, since the school had been unable to identify the perpetrator.

On September 30, Mckenzie and her husband went to the school for an update. With Cpl. Koch and Bloom also in the room, Blanchard told the parents that the investigation hadn’t turned up anything and the window of opportunity for figuring out whose phone the message came from had elapsed. They likened the investigation to “chasing a ghost,” Mckenzie said, and told her there was nothing more they could do.

Administrators also told Mckenzie that the school resource officer had called the Franklin County State’s Attorney’s Office, who told her the incident didn’t meet the definition of a hate crime. Blanchard confirmed this in an email to Seven Days.

Maple Run Unified School District, of which BFA St. Albans is a part, “conducted a thorough investigation of this complaint,” Blanchard wrote in the email.

But Mckenzie, whose family has lived in St. Albans for 11 years, told administrators at last week's meeting that the way they handled the incident  sent the message to her daughter that “people like her do not matter.” Overcome with anger, she left the meeting abruptly.

Mckenzie said the incident has also made Kaylee feel negatively about her school. In an interview, Kaylee said she thinks administrators should have better communicated with other students about the seriousness of the incident. She recalled being in class when Bloom and someone from the IT department came in to check students’ phones as part of their investigation.

“I was the only one who knew what it was for and I was kind of embarrassed,” Kaylee said. “I don’t know why. This isn’t something that I should even feel embarrassed about. I should be mad about [it].”

Kaylee said that the school resource officer never spoke with her as part of her investigation. Furthermore, Mckenzie said, she doesn't know if anyone else from the St. Albans Police Department was made aware of the incident.

The police department did not respond to Seven Days' request for more information. As of Friday, Koch was no longer posted at the school. Under a new contract, she is now stationed at police headquarters and will serve as "an on-call police presence," the Saint Albans Messenger reported.

Blanchard did not give specifics when asked what the school was doing to help Kaylee.

“Supporting students who complain of harassment is our top priority," he wrote in an email. "We will continue to work closely with the student and family to make them feel safe and supported at school.”

Mckenzie said that since the incident, she’s heard from other BFA St. Albans alumni, who shared their experiences of racial discrimination at the school.

"It’s no surprise to them that it’s still a thing and not being taken care of,” Mckenzie said.