'N16GA We Made It' Senior T-shirts Trigger a Teachable Moment in W.Va.

The n-word is not a punchline. Social media is forever. And public shaming is seldom, if ever, the right response to bad behavior, especially by young people.

One chain of ugly events that began in a high school hallway reinforced those facts of life last week. Now it has created a teachable moment for everyone involved – from the students who wore a racially charged t-shirt, to the classmates who shared a photo of it, to the people who turned that photo into a public spectacle.

The trouble started on the last day of class for seniors at Paden City High School, a small school in West Virginia that happens to be my alma mater. Two senior boys decided to end the day with a big reveal.

Standing underneath a “Respect” banner and near a “No Bully Zone” sign, they lifted their outer shirts to display t-shirts with a hidden message. Based on the lyrics of a 2013 rap song by Drake and Soulja Boy, it said, “N16GA We Made It.”

The “16” in the slogan served a dual purpose. It represented both the students’ graduation year and the letters “IG” in a racist insult that most people know better than to speak or write in the 21st century. The t-shirt was green and white, the school colors, and included an image of a wildcat, the PCHS mascot.

Wearing a special-order shirt like that was bad enough, but the story gets worse. Someone in the hallway memorialized the moment in pixels and posted it to the mobile app Snapchat.

In theory, Snapchat photos are there one second and gone 10 seconds later. It’s the perfect social media platform for thoughtless teenage mischief that involves race-laced jokes among friends. But what goes on Snapchat doesn’t necessarily stay on Snapchat. In this case, the picture found its way to a biracial student in a mostly white town of about 2,500 people.

“Wondering how this is acceptable,” she said in reposting the photo to Facebook. And that’s when the public shaming began.

More than 50 people shared her post or republished the photo in their news feeds. The photo also made its way to Twitter, where one person wondered, “This can’t be Paden City HS right? #justWRONG.”

As a PCHS alumnus and native West Virginian, I’ll admit I was furious when I first saw the photo. People love to ridicule the racist rubes in the hills, and now two clueless punks have given them fresh ammunition for their next assault. Worse, they sullied the reputation of my alma mater and hometown by incorporating the school colors and mascot into their “joke.”

I was equally annoyed because their attempt at humor had been discredited at least twice before. Some white students in the Class of 2014 hung a “Nigga We Made It” banner from a high school in Georgia, and just last fall, two teenage girls in Virginia used the sanitized version of the lyric in homecoming t-shirts.

But as I recounted the news in Paden City to my wife, whose only tie to the town is marital, she reminded me that the teens in question are just that – teens. Although they made some stupid mistakes and should suffer repercussions for them, they don’t need a bunch of online gawkers trying to crush their spirits or ruin their lives by saturating the Internet with photos that may haunt them.

Who really is the bully in that situation?

Sometimes the adults in the online room need to remember how much trouble we got into as kids that would have been more embarrassing if it were all over Twitter or YouTube today. And parents should think about how upsetting it would be to see our own children unnecessarily subjected to online humiliation.

A social media blunder of greater import drove that point home mere hours after Snapchat and Facebook thrust Paden City into a racial firestorm. Someone posted an old video that showed Laremy Tunsil, a potential No. 1 draft pick into the National Football League, using a bong while wearing a gas mask.

The video arguably prompted a dozen NFL teams to pick other players first, a turn of events that probably cost Tunsil millions of dollars. His misfortune became the muse for a Greg Gutfeld lament on The Five the next day.

“It’s the best time to be alive with technology,” he said, “but it’s the worst because it abuses you as you abuse it.” He added that young people today are at a disadvantage because their idiocy is documented for everyone to see.

In fairness to the Class of 2016 – in Paden City and beyond – it’s also worth noting that “N16GA We Made It” is a popular, albeit disturbing, graduation motto this year. If you have the stomach for it, type the phrase into Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest and see for yourself.

While we live at a time when the n-word is widely spurned for demeaning an entire race, a segment of the population, both black and white, clearly doesn’t grasp how horrible it is. Others don’t appreciate how bad decisions offline can haunt them online for years, costing them scholarships, jobs and reputations.

In other words, they need an education because as Gutfeld said, “they don’t realize the reach of the things that they do.”

I am hopeful that my alma mater sees last week’s episode as a teachable moment. Officials at both PCHS and in the umbrella Wetzel County school system responded quickly to complaints about the t-shirts.

“I can’t go into details, but I can tell you that the situation has been investigated and dealt with as appropriate,” PCHS principal Jay Salva said less than 24 hours later. County superintendent Leatha Williams reiterated that point, noting that the racial term on the t-shirts violated the school’s dress code.

Salva adamantly denied online rumors that he had approved the t-shirts with the understanding that students would keep any evidence of them off social media. Williams, who is in her first year as superintendent, added that she found no evidence to the contrary.

Both Salva and Williams said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits them from discussing any discipline taken against the students, but some punishment is warranted. At a minimum, the two students who wore the t-shirts should not be allowed to participate in this year’s graduation ceremony. Perhaps the school also should hold their diplomas until they publicly apologize.

These consequences would send a message to the rest of the student body that Williams means it when she says, “Any kind of defaming or derogatory language, in any way, shape or form, is not acceptable in Wetzel County schools.”

It also would lay the foundation for greater racial understanding and more responsible behavior in the digital age.