Earlier this summer, Melisa Pfohl, an elementary school principal in Albany, Calif., was sitting cross-legged on a friend’s couch drinking coffee and scrolling through the emails that had accumulated while she was on a brief, end-of-the-school-year vacation, when she opened a message from her school district’s superintendent. It was short and to the point. On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear the last remaining appeal from the last remaining lawsuit stemming from an Instagram account that convulsed Albany High School in 2017.
When the account was discovered, Pfohl was in her first year as a high school assistant principal after spending a decade teaching elementary school. A biracial Asian and white woman with wavy silver hair, expressive brown eyes and a silver hoop in one nostril, she had known many of the students embroiled in the Instagram account since they were in third grade and had been personally named in some of the ensuing lawsuits. Now she put down her coffee and began to cry. “It was a huge relief that this whole thing is done,” she says.
Done, and yet also not done. Because Albany, a liberal, affluent town of around 20,000 people in the Bay Area, is still struggling with the aftermath. It was a private Instagram account with barely more than a dozen followers. Few people saw it when it was live. Yet its discovery derailed lives, shredded relationships and caused families to flee both the town and its public schools. What happened in Albany happened online, but the repercussions played out everywhere people gathered: in homes and classrooms, at supermarkets and on sports fields, on Facebook and Nextdoor.
Part of the injury was to the town’s self-regard. Albany is so tiny that people who live there call it Smallbany. Bordered by Berkeley to the south and east, by the gray-blue waters of San Francisco Bay to the west and by El Cerrito to the north, Albany is just under two square miles. It isn’t one of those fancy suburbs with gated communities and sprawling McMansions. It feels like a funky little backwater. The homes are mostly stucco bungalows or shingled with wood, the yards and porches festooned with rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs.
Almost half the residents are white, and more than a quarter are Asian. Thirteen percent are Latino. You could call it “diverse,” and you probably do if you’re white, but it doesn’t feel as diverse to Black residents, who make up just over 4 percent of the population. It isn’t that diverse economically, either; median household income is above $113,000 (nationally the figure is about $70,000). Parents shoehorn themselves into Albany’s modest dwellings for one key reason: the schools. If you’re one of Albany’s roughly 1,200 high school students, you know you’re lucky to be there.
That’s one reason the Instagram account was so painful. The schools — three elementary schools, one middle school and one traditional four-year high school — are what bind Albany together. After the account’s discovery, they were also what wedged it apart. The divisions remain in place.
At the town’s middle school graduation in June, parents whose children had been on opposite sides of the chasm opened by the account sat two rows apart from one another and didn’t speak. At the high school, where disciplinary policies and much of the curriculum have been revamped in the account’s wake, teachers deployed competing narratives about how exactly the events should be interpreted, with some seeing them as a calamity that occurred despite Albany’s particular virtues (small, liberal, educated, interconnected) and others as a consequence of Albany’s particular shortcomings (too white, too insular, too wealthy, too obsessed with academic achievement).
The questions that the account raised — about fighting bigotry, about the impacts of social media and about the best way to respond when young people in your community fail so utterly to live up to the values you thought you shared — had no simple answer. Whatever you believed about Albany, about America, about teenagers, racism, sexism, social media, punishment and the public discourse on each of these topics, the story of the Instagram account could be marshaled as evidence. It was the incident that explained everything and yet also the incident that couldn’t be explained. But I have tried: I spent more than five years reporting on what happened, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of legal documents, as well as police reports, social media posts, letters, diaries, photographs, text messages, videos and public testimony.
“It’s like the event that tore apart our city,” says Kim Trutane, who was on the school board at the time and now works as the district’s spokeswoman. “More than that, it kind of ripped our hearts. Because everyone was just like: How could this have happened? How could such a hurtful and damaging thing have happened in Albany?”
For A., it all started a little before 11 a.m. on March 20, 2017. A junior at Albany High School, she had just left her third-period culinary arts class when she was met by a group of girls, most of them Black. “OK, we’ve got to tell you something,” one of them said. “Like we have to tell you.”
A. waited impatiently. It was probably just some kind of boy drama. But it wasn’t — not the kind of boy drama she was expecting, anyway. There’s a racist Instagram account, the girls told her. A bunch of people are following it. And there are pictures of you on it.
Everyone at school, it seemed, had at least two Instagram accounts — the curated one that your relatives and people from other schools could see, and a more informal “spam” or “finsta” account for posting memes, rants and candids for your inner circle. But this account was something else.
Two of the girls in the hallway, one of them Black and one Asian, were the ones who had seen it. Over the weekend, they had been hanging out with one of their close friends, a biracial white and Mexican boy whose nickname was Murphy. (Because they were minors at the time, all the young people in this article are referred to by their initials, middle names or nicknames.) Murphy and the two girls had gone to see the movie “Get Out,” and afterward, he had shown them a private account created by another friend, a Korean American boy whose middle name was Charles. It featured memes about Black girls’ hair, about slavery, about lynching.
Most of the girls gathering around A. were in tears. They had known Charles and many of the account’s 13 followers for years. A multiracial group of extended friends, they had slept over at one another’s houses, hung out together in class and at lunch, lounged around after school watching movies. Several of them were even planning to go to prom together.
A. was the only one of the girls who wasn’t surprised. She slammed her fist into a wall. I should have listened to my mom, she thought. I should have done something to prevent this.
A. remembers feeling out of place in Albany from the time she transferred into the school district, in the third grade, and the feeling intensified when she went to high school. She had a Black father and a white mother, and it seemed clear to her that she wasn’t the kind of girl that Albany boys liked. Those girls wore Lululemon leggings, tossed their long, straight hair over their shoulders, laughed when boys teased them or put them down. Those girls were smart enough to get into a good college but not outwardly so smart that they made people uncomfortable. A. was never going to be one of them. It wasn’t just her brown skin or her curly hair or her low voice. It was something in the way she held herself. Her friends described her as “strong,” “funny,” “sarcastic” and “straightforward,” but beneath the confident exterior she was on shaky ground. Her father had died suddenly just before she started high school, and she had been struggling with depression ever since.
The problems with Charles and his friends had started a couple of months before. She was in Algebra 2, deep in her own thoughts, when she felt a hand in her hair. It belonged to a white boy she sort of knew; they had friends in common. She swatted the hand away. Being pawed like this wasn’t unusual: Whenever she changed her hairstyle, someone’s hands would be in it. She wasn’t about to make a big deal about it — it was the middle of class, and anyway if she got into it with everyone who tried to touch her hair, she would be exhausted.
Then a friend showed her a video of the entire interaction that Charles had posted on his finsta. He had captioned it, “Touching the Nap.”
She confronted Charles on Snapchat, and after some back and forth, he deleted the video. But a few days later, she heard that Charles had posted another classroom photo of her on the same account. This one just showed the back of her head: her bun, her ear, the hood of her sweatshirt. The caption asked whether the photo was of her or another Black girl in the junior class, as if they were impossible to tell apart.
This time she confronted Charles in person and made him delete it. “Don’t post anything else,” she told him. “We are not cool. Don’t talk about me.”
But the feeling of being watched lingered. It made it hard to go to school. Eventually, at her mother’s urging, she talked to Melisa Pfohl, then assistant principal, about what had happened, but she insisted that she didn’t want the school to take any action. “I didn’t want more repercussions,” A. told me during one of many interviews over the ensuing years. Pfohl remembers wanting to respect the autonomy of a teenager who said she preferred to handle the situation on her own because the people involved were part of her social circle. While it seemed like “a messed-up” thing, Pfohl says now, “I didn’t know it was forecasting anything at the time. I sure wish I would have.”
By noon, the girls’ distress had attracted the attention of the school’s administration. Pfohl and the school’s other assistant principal, Tami Benau, ushered them into a conference room. Everyone was talking at once; many were crying. The chaos made it hard to piece together a narrative. Eventually, Benau went to interview Murphy, the boy who revealed the existence of the account, while Pfohl distributed photocopied forms for recording student complaints. Only a couple of them had seen the account firsthand, but now the others remembered the questionable comments and racist jokes they had shrugged off in the past. Everything looked different today.
The problem was, they didn’t have any evidence. Already the 10 or so girls in the conference room were starting to feel hopeless. It would be their word against the boys’, and then everything would go on as normal. Still, they wrote down what they could on the forms:
Private Instagram account of disgusting racist images about multiple black girls in my grade making my very close friends ball their eyes out and have fits of rage.
I’ve heard multiple racist comments made to my friends.
This also affects me b/c I am a Black Girl, already am selfconscious of my self.
One girl, Kerry (a version of her nickname), hadn’t gone into the conference room. She was close friends with both A. and Charles. The daughter of immigrants from Thailand, she was known for being such a good sport that her friends teased her constantly, particularly about her refusal to say anything bad about anyone. Now she was thinking about how she could get copies of what the other girls had seen on Murphy’s phone.
As she walked to her fifth-period class, she pulled out her phone and found the Instagram account the girls had been talking about. It was private, so she couldn’t see the posts, but the app listed the people she followed who also followed it. One name stood out: a boy of mixed Asian, white and Latino descent who would later be identified in litigation as John Doe. Kerry hardly knew him — they had spoken only once or twice — but they were mutuals on Instagram, and another friend of hers, Rosie (a version of her middle name), had dated him briefly. Both of them were in psychology, her next class. When she walked into the classroom, she asked Rosie to borrow Doe’s phone and then meet her in the restroom.
Doe and Rosie have different memories of what Rosie said when she approached him. Rosie, who is white, says she asked him straight up: “Kerry says there’s this weird racist Instagram account you’re following. Can I look at your phone?” Doe remembers her offering a made-up excuse, something like, “Hey, my phone just died, and I need to call my parents.” They agree that he unlocked his phone and handed it to her.
Minutes later, Kerry and Rosie were standing in the middle of the girls’ bathroom, their heads bent over the borrowed phone. Kerry took pictures of the screen with her own phone as Rosie scrolled through the account. Some of the posts were the kinds of things you might see on any other high schooler’s account — memes, guys roasting each other, the regular kind of dumb. But the rest were shocking: a half dozen posts mocking different white and Asian girls at the school for their weight or other aspects of their appearance. Worst of all was the overt, unfiltered racism: Black men being lynched or beaten. Jokes about the Ku Klux Klan and racist slurs. A screenshot of the Snapchat conversation between Charles and A. about the hair-touching video that was captioned, “Holy [expletive] I’m on the edge of bringing my rope to school on Monday.” A photo of another Black girl and her Black basketball coach with a noose drawn around each of their necks and the caption, “twinning is winning.”
“It was so much worse than I anticipated,” Kerry says. “I didn’t think I would react that badly, but I was physically shaking.”
They didn’t have much time. If they were gone for long, their teacher would notice. Rosie scrolled; Kerry photographed. She took pictures of the most offensive posts, roughly two dozen — about half of the total. She took pictures of the comments and the list of followers. Then she sent them via AirDrop to Pfohl and some of the girls.
As A. sat in the conference room, going through the images, she had trouble taking in what she saw. Then she saw a familiar photo. It had been lifted from her own Instagram account — her favorite picture from a trip to Lake Tahoe with her best friend. It had been paired with a photo of a gorilla. “I just got this stomach feeling of like, Wow, basically anything I do is not going to be good enough for these people,” A. told me. “I can’t even take a picture of myself in the snow, looking how I look, and post it on Instagram.”
That night, Charles, sobbing, called his sister, who was away at college. She wasn’t that alarmed at first, because he had called her in tears plenty of times, usually after getting into a fight with their mother, who had divorced their father a few years earlier. Compared with his sister, who had been both an academic and an athletic superstar in high school, Charles was kind of a slacker — smart enough to take advanced classes like A.P. computer science and A.P. physics but not motivated enough to get better than B’s and C’s. He had a close group of male friends that he had hung out with since middle school or even earlier, most of them white or Asian, and he also was tight with a couple of groups of Black and Asian girls. With the girls he tended to let his guard down more, allowing them to glimpse the depression that had dogged him since the collapse of his parents’ marriage. His stepfather, who is white, would send him emails brimming with spiritual advice. “Depression is one bad habit you cannot afford,” he wrote in one. “You may have every reason to be depressed, but accepting those reasons will only deepen your depression. Do not give in to the dark side. … Choose not to be depressed!”
This time, however, Charles wasn’t calling to complain about the usual family conflicts, which were often about his mother’s frustration with his passivity, his lack of drive, the amount of time he spent playing video games. “It’s really bad,” Charles told his sister. “I did something really bad.”
It took him a long time to tell her what. “We’re going to figure this out,” she assured him when he finally choked out a description of the Instagram account. She suggested he start by taking responsibility. He remembers writing his apology with her on the phone, the two of them editing it together. He posted it on Instagram that night:
I completely betrayed people who considered me a friend and I cannot even begin to explain how disgusting I feel. All things that were portrayed on the account do not actually portray my true feelings about people of color. I want to be someone with integrity, someone who cares about all people and someone who people can trust. I have not lived up to that at all. There’s no way for me to rationalize why I did what I did. It was all just my stupid judgment of what would entertain my friends. I cannot express enough that no one but me deserves any hostility or consequences. I don’t expect forgiveness because my actions are unforgivable.
Then, exhausted from crying, he fell asleep.
The account had started at a chain restaurant called the Melt that was known for its grilled-cheese sandwiches. Charles was sitting in a booth with three friends, two of them the children of first-generation immigrants from China and the third a white boy who carried the cachet of also being friends with the high school’s popular kids. It was a winter weekend day sometime late in 2016 or maybe early in 2017, and the four boys, as they later explained in interviews and court documents, were doing what they always did when they were together: trying to make one another laugh. As they waited for their food, Charles scrolled through pictures on his phone — memes he had made, photos he had saved for future memes. His model was the stuff he saw online, in YouTube videos and subreddits, material that seemed funny precisely because it was offensive. Charles didn’t think too deeply about the morality of that kind of thing. What mattered was that these memes made his friends laugh.
Humor was the glue of their friend group. They were the class clowns and the envelope pushers. The ones far more focused on cracking one another up in class than on whatever they were supposed to be learning. Put-downs, roasts and pranks were how they jockeyed for status.
Charles showed the other boys a photo of his friend Ana (a version of her first name) wearing a little black dress and a white coat. Ana, who has a Black father and a white mother, had posted it on Instagram with the caption, “i wanna go back to the old way.” “Does she really, though?” Charles said. When we talked about this moment more than a year later, he wasn’t sure if he had made the joke more explicit: If they really went back to the old way, Ana would be enslaved.
Whatever he said, the others laughed. So he turned the joke into a meme, right there at the Melt, stitching Ana’s post to an old-fashioned engraving of a naked Black man hanging from a tree while being beaten by a white man. He captioned it, “Do you really tho?”
“You should post these somewhere,” his white friend said, then suggested Charles make an Instagram account expressly for this kind of “edgier” content. They all said they would follow it if he did.
So Charles made a new private account and called it @yungcavage, a play on “young savage.” By March, it had 14 followers, including Charles himself. The first few followers were Charles’s close friends, all juniors, like him. The remaining six weren’t in Charles’s inner circle. Three were juniors he was friends with but didn’t spend a ton of time with outside of school, and three were sophomores he knew casually because one of them was in his Mandarin class and had introduced him to the others. Six of the followers were white; the rest were Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern.
Looking back, Charles traces his offensive humor to video games, because if you played a single game of League of Legends online, you were almost guaranteed to hear a barrage of racist terms and homophobic slurs from the other players. In the online kingdom where the edgelords reigned, you gained citizenship by signaling approval. On Reddit forums there were memes that had been “upvoted” by a lot of people, and in 2017 a lot of those memes found humor in things that objectively weren’t funny, which was kind of the point. Racist jokes. Jokes about suicide, pedophilia, rape, incest, mass shootings, the Holocaust, people with disabilities.
It was easy to laugh at those things when they weren’t about you — and you could prove you belonged in the kingdom by laughing even if they were. “Like with all these jokes, in the back of my mind, I know it’s wrong,” he says. “It’s offensive. That’s part of what the humor comes from.”
Something about the surprise of it. Something about it being transgressive, shocking, not meant to be said or even thought. Which meant that the worse it was, the funnier it would be. “I guess the humor just got darker and darker as I explored more of the internet,” Charles says.
Ironic racism could feel like something that just happened, hatched in the peculiar incubator of inside references, digital gags and detached exaggeration that is Gen Z culture, although there is evidence that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have actively pushed this kind of humor into the mainstream. (Because Reddit has improved its enforcement abilities since 2017, much of what Charles and his friends used to see there has migrated to platforms like 9GAG and iFunny and Discord or has been transformed into videos on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.) In 2017, offensive humor was pretty commonplace at Albany High School, at least among white and Asian boys. Shortly after the account was discovered, a senior named Jillian Guffy wrote “What Does It All Meme?” in the Albany High School newspaper. “The constant exchange of offensive memes breeds a vicious competition where the jokes get increasingly more shocking until the initial jokes are no longer very outrageous,” she wrote. “If every time we open our social media accounts we are met with offensive memes, it’s only natural for us to get used to that type of media.”
Today Charles says that if he saw the account as an outsider, he would conclude that the person who made it was filled with hate. Not just because of the content of the pictures, which were bad enough, but also because he targeted specific people, including his Black friends. Ana, in particular, had been one of his closest friends since eighth grade. “The fact that it was people that I had interactions with on a daily basis definitely made it look like I hated these people,” he says. “Which I don’t.”
He knows this is hard to believe and that it sounds as if he’s making excuses. “All the pictures are super messed up,” he says. “It’s definitely racist. I’m not in denial about that, but the way I explain it, I feel like it still makes it seem like I am.”
During the period when Charles was posting racist images on his @yungcavage account, he also wrote a thoughtful essay about racism that connected the hypocrisy of the founding fathers with the failures of Reconstruction and the present-day prison system. Perhaps the essay was written just to get a good grade. Or perhaps these two parts of his brain had found a way to coexist inside his skull, like neighbors who take the same elevator to side-by-side apartments in the same building but never engage in conversation.
The evening of the account’s discovery, John Doe, the boy whose phone Rosie had borrowed, went to see the movie “Kong: Skull Island” with two of his closest friends, a white boy and an Asian girl who were also sophomores. In the middle of the movie, one of their phones began to buzz. “Guys,” the girl whispered. “Come on. You have to see this.”
Out in the lobby of the theater, she showed them. Her phone was blowing up with questions, comments and accusations. Racist, they said. Is this your account?
The same thing was happening to all three of them. It had something to do with an Instagram account they followed, @yungcavage. People seemed to think the three sophomores were intimately involved, which none of them could figure out. They barely knew Charles, who was a grade above them. The girl whose phone was blowing up was in the same Mandarin class as Charles, and he had suggested she follow the account. The other two sophomores followed it as well, because the three of them did almost everything together.
None of them could remember much about what was on the account, and when they went to look, it had already been deleted. Doe was following more than a thousand accounts, and he says it was only later, when he saw photos of the posts, that he realized he’d interacted with @yungcavage at all. (In fact, he had liked many of the posts and commented on two of them.) But that night at the theater, he couldn’t remember much other than that it had seemed “edgy,” in the same vein as YouTubers like iDubbbz and Filthy Frank, whose accounts he followed and who were known for their provocative antics, which included everything from using racial slurs to baking cakes made of hair or vomit.
“It was never anything that I’d ever actively look up and peruse through or honestly thought about deeply,” Doe says now. He was a default double-tapper, who scrolled and liked, scrolled and liked. Later, he asked himself why that was. “I’ve wondered why, back then, I didn’t recognize that as problematic,” he says, referring to the account. “Why did I entertain that? Why did I not say anything?”
But on March 20, 2017, he was thinking only about how to control the damage. At 15, he was a self-described social butterfly, a talented dancer and stylish dresser with a combination of sweetness and coolness that made him appealing to both teachers and peers. “I was trying to save my perceived popularity and public image,” he says. “This was directly attacking that — and me as a person.”
When he got home after the movie, he posted a message to the 1,200 or so followers on his main Instagram account. “I did not create this account,” he remembers writing. “I do not condone what was posted on this account.” It went on, a paragraph-length defense against the accusation that he was racist.
If anything, his post, which he labored over for hours, made things worse. “By knowing about it and not saying anything about it, you are condoning this,” someone replied.
That night, he paced in his room, unable to sleep. It was still a child’s room, the walls covered with book-fair posters from elementary school. He circled the bed — a mattress on the floor so that his blind and elderly cat, one year older than he was, could climb in easily — his steps powered by self-loathing and anxiety.
He thought, What have I done? He didn’t want to tell his parents, didn’t want to risk their seeing him as he suddenly saw himself. “I was scared that they were going to think I was racist,” he says. “In my self-reflection, that was a big question: Am I racist? What makes someone racist?”
Tuesday-night school-board meetings usually didn’t draw a big crowd, but on March 28, 2017, eight days after the account’s discovery, every chair was taken. Some people sat on the floor; others spilled into the hallway. Less than a week earlier, KTVU, a local evening-news channel, had aired a story about the Instagram account that featured partly blurred pictures of some posts and an interview with the mother of one of the Black girls who had been targeted. The town was in an uproar.
Seated on a curved dais beneath the city seal, the members of the school board moved through the mundane items on their agenda until it was time for public comment. Over the next three hours and 20 minutes, some 45 speakers shared their grief and rage not just about what happened at Albany High School in the past week but also about what happened over previous years and even decades. Many Black and Latino speakers said that they had grown up in Albany or raised children and grandchildren there and had experienced racism or sexism or bullying that went unaddressed. “This stuff is part of Albany’s history, and for you to say that it is some isolated incident says more about you than it does about the history of this city,” one speaker charged, addressing the school board.
A Black Albany parent who had a daughter in second grade talked about growing up nearby in Oakland, where he said he went to at least as many funerals as birthday parties. That’s why he and his wife chose to raise their family in Albany, where his daughter would be safe. His voice thrummed with sorrow and fury. “What is the point of working hard in school and doing the things you have to do and then growing up and getting a good job and making enough money to send your kids to school in a place that’s great if they’re going to get treated like this?”
Over and over, speakers advocated for the harshest possible punishment. “Heads need to roll,” one parent said. “Somebody’s got to be expelled over this.” Another speaker, a student, said she hoped the account followers’ lives would be ruined.
About two hours into the meeting, Ana’s father stepped up to the lectern. He had first moved to Albany while getting his mechanical-engineering degree at U.C. Berkeley, and he had an air of authority that had quickly established him as a spokesman for the families of the affected girls. Discipline must be meted out, he told the board, and the appropriate discipline in this case was expulsion. He raised a warning finger. “And one last thing. I’m going to say this one time, and I’m going to say it real slow: If we don’t get the right decision here, may God have mercy on this city.”
At this point, the school’s top administrators already seemed to have lost interest in sorting through the levels of culpability among the account’s different followers, likers and commenters. Some students who followed the account at first received two-day suspensions, but those were soon increased to the maximum suspension allowed under state regulations — five days — regardless of how much he or she interacted with the account. That decision would end up having lasting repercussions for both the students and the school district. Because most of the followers received the same punishment, it was easy for teachers, students and parents to conclude that everyone had been involved to the same extent. According to subsequent lawsuits, school officials soon began referring to the account followers collectively as the “harmers.”
The day after the school-board meeting, A. stood on the floor of the high school gymnasium in gray leggings and a green Army jacket, holding a microphone in one hand and her phone in the other. Students in the bleachers leaned forward, straining to hear her trembling voice. It was the school’s annual diversity assembly, and A. was reading something she had written called “I Will Not Stand.” She described a young boy of color who had come into the ice-cream parlor where she worked and whose mother had asked if Albany High School would be a good place for him. She noted how sad she felt when she realized she couldn’t answer in the affirmative. “So I will not stand for it,” she said. “I will not stand for feeling unsafe in your own school/I will not stand for being shamed for something so strong and beautiful/I will not stand for being belittled and beat down/I will not stand for people trying to shove me into their perfect little stereotype.”
After she uttered the final “I will not stand” in her list, she sat down, cross-legged, on the gym floor. By the end of the assembly, most of the students in the bleachers were on the gym floor, too, called down by a student speaker who asked for a show of solidarity.
By now, Charles was facing expulsion, as was one of his close friends, a Chinese American account follower whose racist comments on the posts indicated a higher level of involvement than the others. (That second expulsion was later blocked by a judge.) A third student, the one who touched A.’s hair, had agreed to go on independent study for the rest of the year. But the others were returning to school, and as their suspensions drew to a close, administrators found themselves confronting another problem: Somehow the kids who followed the account and the Black girls who were affected by it were going to have to go to school together.
Eventually school administrators hit upon a plan. A local nonprofit called SEEDS (Services that Encourage Effective Dialogue and Solutions) would hold a mediation session between the two groups of students on the day the 11 followers, likers and commenters were due to return to school.
The mediation was optional, but the 11 followers agreed to attend. Their motivations and expectations varied. Some wanted a chance to apologize to the girls in person or to deliver the apology letters they had written. Others just wanted to get back to school. “I was kind of looking forward to this, in a weird sense,” Doe says. “Because I thought this was going to be an opportunity to explain myself.”
He had spent days trying to understand why he hadn’t said something when he first saw the account. Various explanations presented themselves: He had thought of himself as peripheral, a sophomore eavesdropping on conversations among a group of juniors. If someone was going to say something, shouldn’t it be someone inside the group? But what if those circumstances made him more responsible instead of less so? What if the fact that he didn’t really know the account creator made him uniquely qualified to blow the whistle on the whole thing — or at least to separate himself from the situation? Why was he thinking it over only now? “I felt like I had a lot of opportunities to unfollow this account that I didn’t take,” he says.
The day before the mediation session, someone associated with the Albany High School Feminist Club sent out a text about a protest planned by two other student clubs, the Black Student Union and the school’s chapter of Amnesty International. The protest would coincide with the suspended students’ return to school and begin at the midmorning break with a sit-in in the main lobby. “Please share this with basically anyone you know who also believes these ‘harmers’ should not be let back into our school,” the text instructed.
The message was forwarded from person to person, eventually reaching the “harmers” themselves. School administrators got wind of the protest, too, but they decided to go forward with the mediation, which would be held in the same building where the protest was planned.
Room 104 is a classroom big enough for a couple of saggy couches and an oversize armchair pushed up against the windows. On the day of the mediation, the 11 Instagram followers sat in red-seated chair-desks on the side of the room closer to the door. The targets and a group of their supporters sat across from them. The moderators sat at either end. The girls had been in high spirits before the session began, snapping photos, buoyed by both jitters and hopefulness. But now the tension in the room was palpable.
“I could feel the angry, anxious, nervous energy everyone was feeling,” Ana remembers.
According to a timeline created by SEEDS and later filed in court, the moderators started with what was supposed to be a neutral, low-impact question — something like, “What are some of the things you really like about Albany High School?” They passed a rock around the room to signal each person’s chance to reply. That part went well enough, although a number of the girls on the targeted side of the room opted to pass the rock along without speaking.
Then the moderators asked the people who had been affected by the account to talk about how they felt when it was discovered and how they had been impacted since. A. recalls saying that her sister had asked her why she was so sad all the time. “I shouldn’t have to tell an 8-year-old that I’m being bullied and I can’t feel good about myself,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to say that!”
The girls cried. Some of them yelled. They explained how deeply betrayed they felt. After everyone had a chance to speak, the Instagram group was asked to respond.
That’s when things began to go terribly, horribly wrong. The first problem was that the main culprits weren’t in the room. The mediation was for students who were returning to classes, so the three students who were considered most culpable hadn’t been invited. The 11 followers who came to the mediation kept wanting to explain the limits of their involvement, to point out that they weren’t the ones who had actually made the posts. One boy had only just started following the account. Another hardly ever went on Instagram and said he had never interacted with the account. A couple of others said they had liked the posts without really taking in the contents.
It wasn’t me, they each wanted to say. I’m not the one who did this. I’m not a racist.
But the distinctions that felt so important to the account followers meant little to the people who had been targeted. Who cared which one of them drew the noose or compared A. to a gorilla? The point was that the people in that room had seen those things and had given them their approval, whether overt or implied.
“I really thought they would own up to what they did and, you know, kind of apologize,” A. later told a news crew that covered the sit-in. “And a lot of it was them defending themselves and constantly saying, ‘Well, I didn’t really add to it by liking and commenting, I didn’t really think I was a part of it.’ And none of them were like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m taking full responsibility, I hate what I did, I don’t agree with it.’ I didn’t hear that.”
According to interviews with people who were there, the individual responses of the account followers varied significantly. Some were remorseful and contrite. Others were cocky or disengaged. All were desperately uncomfortable. Many wouldn’t look up or meet the eyes of their accusers. The more emotional the targeted girls and their friends were, the more some of the followers focused on their own level of culpability rather than on the pain and hurt in front of them. “Bro, chill,” is how A. characterizes their attitude. “Why are you taking it so seriously?”
It would have been different if they had been able to talk one on one, says Murphy, the boy who initially showed the account to the girls. Then he wouldn’t have been so worried about what his male friends thought of him. “I think it’s because we’re guys,” Murphy says. “Where it’s like we don’t want to show weakness, almost.”
As the morning wore on, Kerry felt as if she were part of a collective panic attack. The emotions that had been building inside her since the day she stood in the bathroom photographing the posts with Rosie now burst out of her mouth in a kind of howl. “I thought I knew you guys!” she remembers yelling. “I was going to go to prom with you!”
By 11 a.m., a couple of hundred student protesters, most of them in the upper grades, had gathered on the floor of the main building, just yards from Room 104, where the mediation session was still underway. They sat cross-legged on the red-and-white-checked floor, taking up every inch of space. More protesters had taken over the bright red staircase that led to the upper floors. Some held signs that said things like “I will not stand for racism” and “We are the human race.”
“It was silent,” says one teacher, who requested anonymity because she feared retribution for talking to the press. “And the expression on their faces was just fierce. Like, ‘You can’t intimidate us.’ It was powerful.”
A few minutes earlier, Val Williams, the district superintendent, had sent out a communitywide email announcing that a “rope that looked like a noose” had been found hanging from a tree at a park next door to the high school. It turned out to be a rope swing, but by the time Williams sent out a correction about an hour later, tensions inside the mediation session, already at a peak, had reached a boiling point. The girls and their friends were certain the followers had hung the noose; given what they’d seen on the account, it wasn’t hard to believe. Some of the followers were infuriated by the accusation and skeptical that the noose was even real. Their dismissiveness further incensed the girls, some of whom stormed out of Room 104. There, a few strides away, were the protesters.
“You guys need to see what you’ve caused at the school,” one of the targeted girls said when she returned to the room. “It’s time to get out in the hallway and stand in front of that crowd so everyone can see your faces.”
In declarations filed in court, school administrators say that the roughly 250 students at the sit-in “remained quiet and respectful” when the account followers came out of the room. But others who were there — students, parents and staff — say that the protesters didn’t stay completely silent for long. Ned Purdom, then an English and journalism teacher at the school, recalls hearing a rumble move through the crowd as the perpetrators came out. “For a few seconds it was very quiet,” he says. “Just this silent standoff.” He adds, “Then the shouting started.”
“Everyone was hurling insults at us,” Murphy says. “Everyone was just bashing on us.”
As John Doe stood in front of everyone, his body buzzed with adrenaline. But his mind was utterly blank. He kept asking himself, Is this really happening right now?
“I was just completely shut off, very disassociated, detached from the whole thing because it didn’t feel real,” he recalls. “That’s easily the most surreal experience I’ve had in my life, because these are all people that I’ve known forever, some since kindergarten. People that I thought knew me, that I thought I knew.”
His teachers were there. Even his friends. (Later these friends would tell him that they had tried to go to class but had been told by their instructors to attend the protest instead.) And, adding to the weirdness of the moment, his mother had arrived. She had come to the school to pick him up at the end of the mediation and had witnessed the whole thing.
She pushed through the crowd until she stood between her son and the protesters with her arms thrown wide, as if to shield him with her body. “You’re the bullies,” she told the crowd. Later, Doe would feel grateful to his mom for sticking up for him, but in that moment his only thought was, This is my mom in front of the whole school, embarrassing me.
“Get them out of here!” she yelled to the teachers and administrators who were watching the scene unfold. “This isn’t safe!”
Then one of the account-affected girls was on her feet, yelling at Doe’s mother. “Shut up, bitch! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Racism is not the same as getting yelled at, OK?”
“You hung that noose,” somebody yelled. “Whose mom are you?”
Just as things seemed ready to spin even further out of control, the followers were hustled back into Room 104.
By early afternoon, somewhere between 300 and 700 students were out of class. The bulk were at the sit-in, but a sizable number were milling around in groups, intoxicated by the intense emotions of the day and the sudden absence of restrictions. Outside, the news vans were lined up in front of the school. A news helicopter circled overhead.
Most of the people targeted by the account had joined the protest along with their friends. After an administrator told them that they had to clear a path so as not to create a fire hazard, the protesting students had moved outside. They sat on either side of a long strip of pavement that extended from the school steps to the curb. The Instagram followers were meant to walk this gantlet, which was being described as a “walk of shame.” The protesters insisted no harm would come to them if they did. They just wanted the account followers to see how hurt they were, they told the school administration.
The parents of the account followers were trying to figure out another way to get their kids out of the school. Some of them, including Doe’s mother, had been sequestered in a storeroom for hours while school administrators tried to determine their next move. Student protesters were looking in or banging on the windows of both the storeroom and a conference room to which the account followers had been moved after the collapse of the mediation.
At 2:22 p.m., the Albany Police Department was contacted by an unidentified caller who then handed the phone to the school’s principal, Jeff Anderson, who is white. Anderson wanted to report “a disturbance” at the school and said they “needed some support.” School officials told the police that they were concerned about how to get the Instagram followers out of the school safely. According to a Police Department report, “all available A.P.D. resources” were immediately deployed to the area around the high school, including some officers who had been scheduled to attend a training outside the city. A nearby intersection was blocked off.
The police recommendation was for two plainclothes officers who were already on campus to escort the involved students outside via the back exit, a complicated route that involved crossing a courtyard, then going through the lobby of the school gym to reach the sidewalk. Two marked patrol cars would be waiting for them.
At around 2:50 p.m., a physical-education teacher arrived to accompany the Instagram followers alongside the two plainclothes detectives. When they got the signal, the students in the conference room shot across the hall to meet up with the parents who had been waiting in the storeroom and slip out through a back door into the courtyard. Then everyone just ran.
Outside, the protesters were still waiting for the Instagram followers to walk the gantlet. Then someone shouted from inside the building, “They’re going out the back!”
By the time the Instagram followers and their parents reached the gym lobby, a large crowd of students had gathered outside, phones out, filming, yelling. An empty water bottle flew through the air and struck one of the mothers on the head. As the Instagram followers remember it, their police escorts drifted out of sight.
It was too crowded to run, so the account followers had to shuffle single file. Suddenly Murphy felt a sharp tug on his back. The P.E. teacher had his hand on Murphy’s backpack to keep him from getting sucked into the crowd, and he had been pulled backward himself. The next thing Murphy knew, someone had flipped him around and was punching him in the face. The blows broke his nose. Blood gushed onto his shirt and his white Vans, pooling on the ground. Another account follower was also hit.
Doe and the other sophomores and their parents made it to a minivan driven by his father, but the van was soon surrounded by students. “We’re trapped,” one of the parents recalls. “We can’t move. We can’t drive. They start shaking the car, pushing the car, and we’re all sort of bouncing around inside, and I just don’t understand what the hell is happening.” The parent says, “I don’t know how to describe how terrifying it was.”
The first lawsuit was filed a month later by four of the Instagram followers and their parents. Named as defendants were both the Albany Unified School District and Superintendent Val Williams; the principal, Jeff Anderson; and Melisa Pfohl. The lawsuit argued that both the Instagram posts themselves and the likes and comments were expressive or political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment, and that because @yungcavage was a private account, created and interacted with outside school, the school district had no authority to punish the students for engaging with it. The students who had participated in the mediation session also argued that the school had placed them in harm’s way “with reckless indifference” during the sit-in, by riling up the crowd with the erroneous email about the noose and by failing to find them a safe way to leave the school.
The second lawsuit came a little over a week later, filed on behalf of the three sophomores and another account follower who hadn’t interacted with any of the posts. The second suit included a slightly different First Amendment argument: The district might have the right to discipline students because of hateful speech, but “liking” a post and following an account were not hateful in and of themselves and thus were constitutionally protected. But free-speech issues were not the primary focus. Instead, the lawsuit argued that by exposing their identities and treating them as if they were responsible for the creation of the account, the district had made it impossible for these minimally involved students to safely return to school, thus depriving them of their right to education. By the end of June, Murphy and Charles would each file lawsuits of their own, on free-speech and other grounds, bringing the total of litigating students to 10.
Almost as soon as the first lawsuits were filed, the parents of the account’s targets began investigating whether they could sue the parents of the account followers. Most of the firms they approached weren’t interested in the case, perhaps because the families they wanted to sue didn’t have the kind of deep pockets the school district had. A.’s mother, though, eventually found a lawyer who would take A.’s case: Elizabeth Riles, a Black woman who specialized in workplace discrimination and personal injury.
But A. wasn’t interested in investing more of her time and energy thinking about the incident. She just wanted the whole thing to go away. Fewer than half of the Instagram followers had ever returned to school after the failed mediation session, but running into those who had was a source of daily tension. “Just working on not being fazed by them being there was hard,” she says.
The followers had been punished as much as they could be, yet the impact of the account lingered. At school, she felt scrutinized both for being Black and also for having been victimized. “People that I didn’t talk to would be way too nice to me or just kind of assume that I was like some type of like politically correct bomb that was about to go off and correct you,” she says. Often, she stayed home. Her mother worried about the way her once-fearless child seemed to have lost the ability to climb out of bed in the morning. She gave A. a Chihuahua puppy to lift her spirits. But that too was a challenge. A. made a point of walking the dog during school hours, when she knew she wouldn’t run into any of her peers. “I didn’t want to go outside,” she recalls. “I didn’t want people to see me.”
Over the course of the following school year, A.’s mother kept bringing up the prospect of a lawsuit. With the one-year anniversary of the account’s discovery coming up, they were running out of time to sue. “You’ll have no options after that,” A. remembers her mother telling her. “You’re limiting a plethora of opportunities for yourself if you don’t do anything.”
The word “limiting” hit hard. Because A. did feel limited. She was a senior now and hadn’t applied to any four-year colleges. But some of those followers were going to college, weren’t they? They were going to go on with their lives. “I already felt limited in certain aspects by my social class,” she says. She decided to go ahead with the lawsuit.
In March 2018, Elizabeth Riles filed a complaint in Alameda County Superior Court against Charles and the two other boys who were considered most responsible, along with their parents, for violation of A.’s civil rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. One of the boys was also accused of battery (for touching A.’s hair).
A month later, the school district settled with seven of the 10 Instagram followers who had sued. For four of those students, the settlements, to be paid by the district’s insurance, were meant to cover any medical costs, counseling and moving expenses or private-school tuition. Three boys who had returned to the high school each received $80,000 cash settlements, after the court found that the district had violated their First Amendment rights because they had never indicated any approval, via a like or comment, of the posts that targeted individual students.
At a school-board meeting soon after, parents of some of the targeted girls took to the microphone, huddled together at the lectern. A.’s mother wore a black leather jacket over a striped turtleneck, her long blond hair spread over her shoulders and her arms folded across her chest. “How could you not have even said no?” she demanded, tearfully. “What you have done has been like putting salt in a wound. And our girls still have to go to school because they want to graduate. They have to go to school and hear these boys talk about how they’re going to have a victory party?”
Slowly, the last of the lawsuits made their way through the courts. By the fall of 2020, there were just two people suing the district, one of whom was Charles. The same two were also among the last remaining defendants in A.’s lawsuit. Charles sat for deposition after deposition, not really clear about which case he was being interviewed for. “I definitely, objectively think, OK, I’m in the wrong,” and his classmate was in the right, he told me. “She didn’t really do anything wrong.” Even so, he allowed the lawsuits to keep going, fighting on two fronts, as plaintiff and as defendant.
A trial date for A.’s lawsuit was set for the end of November. Three years and eight months had passed since the account was first discovered, but many of the students on both sides of the story were still struggling to get on with their lives. The pandemic shutdown intensified the feeling that they were stuck in an endless loop. A. described her life as “purgatory” and fantasized about having the resources to leave town.
John Doe had continued the soul-searching journey that began after the account’s discovery. By his sophomore year in college, he found that he was grateful for the way the experience had changed him. He was more serious now than he’d been as a 15-year-old social butterfly, plagued by both anxiety and depression. Still, he thought he had gained more than he had lost. “Had I just continued that trajectory at Albany, how I would be as a person — I think I would be worse off,” he says. “I would probably be less introspective, less critical. I would think less. Because I question things now in a way that I don’t think I could have before, had I not gone through the experience like this.”
Charles wasn’t quite as resolved. He wanted to settle A.’s case, but he was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that he would have to hand over his own money. Funds were tight. He was still working a retail job, still going to community college. He hadn’t gotten anything from his own lawsuit, which his lawyer continued to appeal. “It’s hard,” he says. “It’s not like I don’t want them to get something out of it. It’s just, I don’t want them to take it from me.”
On Nov. 30, 2020, the day the trial was scheduled to begin, Elizabeth Riles told the judge that a settlement had been reached. Riles would not confirm the amount, but Charles remembers agreeing to pay $15,000. Combined with settlements from the other defendants, some of them confidential, the amount going to A. was meaningful, even if it wasn’t quite as much as the $80,000 awarded to some of the account followers.
Afterward, she sounded more relieved than jubilant. “I’m very glad that this chapter is over in my life,” she said. Now she had a little money, a little freedom. “I’ve been battling with myself about whether I should play it safe or travel and take bigger leaps that have been presenting themselves to me,” she said. “This is just kind of affirming to me that I should keep taking leaps. Because it’s working.” Shortly afterward, she moved to the highlands of Guatemala to study meditation, metaphysics and yoga at a retreat center by Lake Atitlán. She has been traveling the world ever since.
Charles’s lawsuit kept going, his lawyers appealing to a higher court with every loss until finally, this June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the last appeal.
Darren McNally, who is now the principal of Albany High School, has a bald pate, a bushy reddish beard and an implacable demeanor that belies his interest in the emotional lives of his students and their families. In 2017, when the @yungcavage account was discovered, he was a first-year administrator. Today most of the students involved are 23, around the age he was when he first started teaching. When he thinks about them, which is often, he thinks about the importance of teaching empathy and interpersonal connection, of helping students connect the dots between the more abstract lessons about injustice they receive in the classroom and the immediate impacts of their own actions on the human beings sitting in the desks next to them. “These kids had been instructed that these things are bad on an intellectual level,” he said, referring to the racism and sexism of the @yungcavage account, “but not on a deeper interpersonal and emotional level. And so they knew it would be transgressive, it would be edgy to do this, but didn’t understand the harm that could come from it.”
Schools can bridge that gap, McNally suggests, by building a capacity for reflection among young people who may not be in the habit of thinking deeply about their own or other people’s emotions. But doing so requires moving beyond the conventional calculations of school discipline, in which the menu of responses to bullying or hate speech is limited to three choices: ignore, suspend or expel. When the Albany community demanded the harshest possible retribution, it was in part because few people could imagine an alternative that didn’t amount to shrugging it off or sweeping it under the rug. “We live in a society that is so punishment-focused, that is so focused on turning people into right and wrong and then punishing wrongness, that it’s incredibly difficult to get people out of that mind-set,” he says. “It makes me think about how we as a society have actually trained everybody that exclusion is what you do to people that are not right.”
Like McNally, Melisa Pfohl has found herself in a contemplative frame of mind since the resolution of the lawsuits. Back in 2017, she interviewed every student she knew was involved on both sides of the account. Each of their stories was different; many were heartbreaking. It is those overlooked particularities that she mourns now, the complexities that were lost in the rush to respond to the community’s desire for immediate action and stern retribution.
Back then, it felt as if she were in the middle of a conflagration. “It was a fire line,” she says. “And so everybody was passing the buckets.” Her eyes fill with tears at the recollection. “Some of us, me included, accidentally picked up some gas. We didn’t know it, right? We were just passing the bucket. And I’m sorry that it was gasoline. I didn’t mean to do any harm. I tried to pick up plenty of buckets of water. But when it’s all moving so quickly like that, it all looks the same.”
This article is adapted from “Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed,” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dashka Slater is a writer in California with a focus on teenagers and criminal justice. Her book “The 57 Bus,” a New York Times best seller, was based on an article she wrote for the magazine in 2015 and went on to win a 2018 Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association. Pola Maneli is an illustrator in South Africa whose work has a narrative, cinematic style.
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