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Riverhead senior’s college admission, athletic scholarship rescinded after racist social media post

Marquette University has rescinded its offer of admission and an athletics scholarship to a Riverhead High School senior after she posted a racist message on Snapchat related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The university announced its decision three days after a screenshot of the message was posted and began circulating widely on social media, leading to outrage among students and alumni of the Catholic Jesuit school in Wisconsin, who demanded the administration take action.

The message, posted by Leah Zenk, read: “some ppl think it’s ok to [expletive] kneel during the national anthem so it’s ok to kneel on someone’s head. come at me. y’all brainwashed. kinda disgusting lowkey.”

Mr. Floyd’s death while in police custody, after an officer continued to kneel on his throat for a reported 8 minutes and 46 seconds, has ignited protests across the nation in response to police brutality and racial injustice. The officer has since been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved were fired, but no charges have yet been brought against them.

The university released a statement on social media Monday afternoon that said: “We have made the decision to rescind the incoming student’s offer of admission and athletics scholarship, effective immediately. We are called to build a nurturing, inclusive community where all people feel safe, supported, welcomed and celebrated.”

The Zenk family declined comment Tuesday. The senior wrote a message on Snapchat seeking to explain the controversial post, saying it was taken out of context. A screenshot of the Snapchat post was shared with the News-Review.

“What happened to Mr. Floyd is terrible,” she wrote. “I never said it wasn’t. What I wrote was worded poorly and then taken out of context. Kneeling on someone’s neck and kneeling during the National Anthem are both disturbing. The fact that Mr. Floyd died is horrible. But it is equally horrible that our servicemen and women die every day protecting this country along with preserving the rights that allow people to kneel if they want to and then gets taken for granted. I am a PROUD PATRIOT. I will stand by my country and will apologize to no one for that. My deepest sympathies go out to the Floyd family and all the families whose lives have been turned upside down by what is happening in Minnesota.”

Ms. Zenk had signed to play lacrosse at Marquette, a Division I program that competes in the Big East Conference. She is a goalie and also played tennis on Riverhead’s varsity team. She was one of 11 Riverhead seniors on the varsity lacrosse team who posed together in November for a photo as they celebrated their college selections. The team’s senior season was ultimately canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, Riverhead Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez posted a message on the district website and sent a robocall to parents that was related to the social media post after several students and alumni reported it to administrators.

“It was recently brought to our attention that several of our students have been involved with posting controversial messages online,” the message read. “Since this is a time where we are all relying so heavily on social media, I want to take this time to remind everyone to please continue to be responsible digital citizens. I also want all students and parents to know that we are just one email away if you need support or guidance. Now more than ever, we must come together as one.” 

The superintendent said Tuesday that the district does not comment on individual student matters.

“However, the district recognizes Riverhead’s diversity as a strength and will continue to engage our school community and embrace that diversity,” Ms. Henriquez said.

Brianna Yi, who is entering her sophomore year at Marquette, said the comment was “insensitive and disgusting.” She pointed to another social media post that was circulated online from Instagram in 2017 in which Ms. Zenk used the hashtag #beaner, a derogatory term for Latinos, following the line: “If you don’t like it, leave it,” in reference to the United States.

“Her social media posts have insulted and hurt two major communities within the Marquette community, the African American community and Latino community,” said Ms. Yi, who is Korean. “So, many of us chose to speak out and bring it to the attention of our university leaders because we felt it was important that this individual was not living out the Marquette way and that this behavior would not be tolerated.”

The university also received complaints from local students.

Jadyn Ford of Riverhead, a former three-sport athlete for Mattituck High School and an incoming sophomore at Dean College in Massachusetts, said he was taken aback by Ms. Zenk’s Snapchat post, considering it openly racist.

“It was just crazy, to be honest, that someone would say something like that,” Mr. Ford, who is black, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Asked how he would categorize that post, which he shared, he answered: “To the max, to be honest. Who can say something so cruel and think it’s OK?”

He added that he thought it was a “lesson learned” when the university withdrew her admission and athletic scholarship.

“I think if she kept it to herself or whoever, that’s her own thought, but to put it where everyone’s going to see it and you know it’s going to get out … Why would you put it out?” he said.

Mr. Ford said he doesn’t know Ms. Zenk, but “I know of her.”

Is there a lesson to be learned from this episode?

“We’re all equal, basically,” Mr. Ford said.

Brian Troyer, Marquette’s dean of undergraduate admission, responded via email to some of the people who brought it to the school’s attention. He said the decision to rescind admission was made “following an internal review involving the Division of Student Affairs, Undergraduate Admissions, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and Intercollegiate Athletics, and in alignment with our Guiding Values.”

It’s unclear if the university spoke directly to Ms. Zenk prior to making the decision.

Marquette’s student population is more than 70% white; black students represent just 4%.

Myles Buchanan, who will be a junior there in the fall, said he saw the screenshot of the Snapchat post when it was sent in a group chat that black students on campus participate in through the app GroupMe. He was shocked to see the message, he said, and by the fact that Ms. Zenk would have thought it was acceptable to post it on social media.

Mr. Buchanan, who’s involved in many activities on campus for black students and is the host of a radio show, submitted a bias complaint form online and later tagged the university in a social media post, figuring public attention would bring action faster.

“This is not an isolated issue,” he wrote in a text message. “We deal with racism on this campus more often than we don’t.”

He said he thought the university made the correct decision to withdraw the admission offer.

Citlalli Gonzalez, who will be a sophomore at Marquette in the fall, said she hopes this shows Ms. Zenk that what she did was wrong. She added that she hopes people see that there can be consequences for actions.

“This wasn’t just about me,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who is Hispanic. “I had to take action for anyone who had ever felt like they didn’t belong because of their skin color, religion or sexual preference or anything else. I’m not standing up for myself anymore, I’m standing up for everyone who can’t stand up for themselves. This isn’t the ’60s anymore. People aren’t going to hide or worry about racism in their own communities, not anymore.”

A university rescinding admission based on a student’s racial comments has happened in several other high profile instances. Last June, Harvard College rescinded its admission of Kyle Kashuv, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed in a 2018 shooting.

“A trail of derogatory and racist screeds that it turns out Mr. Kashuv, 18, wrote as a 16-year-old student,” according to the New York Times, led the university to rescind its admission offer.


Correction: The college Mr. Ford attends was listed incorrectly. He attends Dean College in Massachusetts.