White Colorado State students won't be punished over blackface photo, school says

In the picture, four students are seen in blackface as two of them cross their arms in front of their chests in a "Wakanda Forever" salute.
Colorado State University students
Colorado State University officials say a photo circulating on social media showing students posing in what appears to be blackface does not violate university rules or regulations and that the students involved will not be punished.via Facebook

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By Minyvonne Burke and Shamar Walters

Several white Colorado State University students pictured wearing blackface and striking a pose from the movie "Black Panther" won't be punished by the school because of First Amendment rights, administrators said.

The picture was posted on social media and shows four students in blackface as two of them cross their arms in front of their chests in a "Wakanda Forever" salute, a reference to "Black Panther." The photo was captioned "Wakanda forevaa."

In a letter posted Tuesday on the school's website, the university's president, Joyce McConnell, and two other administrators said they understand the image caused "a great deal of pain."

"We have heard from many of you — and we hear you. Moreover, we respect your voices. We know that images like this one — whether consciously racist or not — can perpetuate deliberate racism and create a climate that feels deeply hostile," the letter read.

But the administrators said "personal social media accounts are not under our jurisdiction." Students, faculty and staff "can generally post whatever they wish to post on their personal online accounts in accordance with their First Amendment rights."

The letter continued, "This recent post runs counter to our principles of community, but it does not violate any CSU rule or regulation, and the First Amendment prohibits the university from taking any punitive action against those in the photo."

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However, the administrators wrote that they want to use the incident as a "powerful learning moment" and have asked faculty and staff to "share their professional expertise and personal wisdom" on issues regarding race and identity. The university is also planning campus events to be announced soon, according to the letter.

Colorado State officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

One of the students in the photo has come forward and identified herself as Leana Kaplan. In a statement obtained by NBC affiliate KUSA in Denver, Kaplan apologized and said she understands "how awful this photo looks."

"The history of blackface is real and cannot be denied," Kaplan said. "I am sorry."

She said the image was taken after the group put on cosmetic face masks.

"Life lessons may not come from the best situations. My mistakes have hurt others and I deeply regret the pain that my ignorance has caused," she said, adding that she hopes the incident "can be used as an opportunity for dialogue and learning."

Kaplan did not immediately return a request for comment. NBC News has been unable to identify the other three students in the photo.

The blackface photo is the latest reported incident of racism or bias at the school this year. In April, the university posted several messages on its website encouraging students who experience "discrimination or bias on campus to report that behavior."

The messages came after three students publicly raised concerns, the school said, without giving further details.

In March, racist graffiti was found inside a men's bathroom on campus. The school did not say what the graffiti depicted but said in a letter to the campus that it was "deeply offensive" and did not "reflect the values and character" of the school.

Colorado State University, which is in Fort Collins, has about 33,000 students, of whom about 22 percent are "ethnic minorities," according to the university's 2018-19 fact book. According to Forbes, about 2.5 percent of the school's students in 2017-18 were African American.