Grand Traverse County prosecutor: Racist group 'reprehensible' but not criminal

May 6—TRAVERSE CITY — No criminal charges will be filed against the teenagers involved in a racist social media group that spurred community outrage two weeks ago.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg issued a press release Wednesday explaining the decision while denouncing the actions as "repulsive, racist and discriminatory," especially given that they involved minors. Five students from Traverse City Central, Traverse City West Senior and Benzie Central high schools participated in the group as did one person from out of state.

The account called "Slave Trade" included a mock slave auction in which photos of Black students were posted in the chat and then other students bid on how much they would pay to buy the student as a slave. It also included threats of murder against an LGBTQ person as well as calls for the genocide of all Black people and a renewal of the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.

Moeggenberg explained the messages in the chat, while reprehensible, were not criminal because they were "not intended to communicate a threat nor were they intended to place another in fear." The lack of intent was clear from interviews with the participants and the messages, which were never meant to be shared outside of the group, Moeggenberg said.

"The lack of criminal charges should not be seen in any way as condoning the behavior," Moeggenberg said. "It is merely an application of law as it applied to the facts of this case."

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Jala Sue is the mother of Nevaeh Wharton, a 15-year-old sophomore from Traverse City Central who was targeted in the .

She said Moeggenberg called her Wednesday afternoon to explain the decision before informing the public.

"She answered a lot of questions and explained that even though there is talk of killing people, there is still not criminal act — which doesn't make any sense to me, but apparently that's just how it is," Sue said. "To me it just feels like it's not taken seriously, and that's scary."

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Sue is hopeful Traverse City Area Public Schools officials take the actions more seriously. She received an email Tuesday stating the TCAPS investigation was on hold pending the prosecutor's decision. Sue is hopeful the investigation is now "unpaused" and that some justice will be done.

Sue and others have called for the suspension or expulsion of the students involved.

TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said the county prosecutor's investigation and decision is completely separate from the district's investigation, which VanWagoner said continues to move forward. VanWagoner could not provide an update on any disciplinary action taken against the students involved.

Sue said her daughter, instead of dwelling on the incident, sees what happened to her as an opportunity to improve her community.

"I'm always checking in on her, because that's what is most important," Sue said. "The more she talks about it, the better she feels. For her, it's becoming more of a platform to speak out about the need for education."

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