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Students made a racist deepfake of a principal. It left parents in fear.

The firestorm touched on several hot-button issues in schools, including racism, student privacy, abuse of artificial intelligence and threats of gun violence

Three high school students in Putnam County, N.Y., made a deepfake of the George Fischer Middle School principal going on a racist rant against Black students. (Google Maps)
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The first letter from Carmel Central School District officials arrived on Feb. 13, alerting parents that three high-schoolers had “used artificial intelligence to impersonate the staff” and made them appear to make “inappropriate comments” in videos.

There was no threat to school safety, the letter added.

Abigail Santana didn’t think much about that last part. After reading the letter from her child’s school district in Putnam County, N.Y., she assumed it had handled the situation. But then her 10-year-old told her they’d seen the videos on TikTok — and apart from the deepfake of her middle school principal making a profanity-laced racist rant, other videos created by the high-schoolers included “threats to shoot up Black and Latino students,” Santana said.

“I just keep thinking to myself, ‘What if something had happened?’” said Santana, who is Afro-Latina. “What if my child would’ve gotten hurt or killed because I sent them to school without knowing these videos existed?”

In the days following the Feb. 13 letter, more details emerged about the videos as parents tried to piece together what happened on their own. And while Carmel Central School District officials later said they were trying to balance disclosing sensitive information without generating panic, many parents believe the administration downplayed the seriousness of the videos, which began circulating in early February. The incident naturally became a firestorm, touching on several hot-button issues schools across the country are grappling with: racism, student privacy, abuse of artificial intelligence and threats of gun violence.

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When reached for comment, the school district declined to make Superintendent Mary-Margaret Zehr available, instead referring The Washington Post to her last letter.

The videos, which were removed from TikTok but obtained by The Post, all seem to target George Fischer Middle School. In one, a male voice laid over a video of the middle school’s principal, John Piscitella, goes on a 37-second tirade against Black students, saying they should be sent back to Africa and calling them monkeys and the n-word. It ends with: “I am bringing my machine gun to school.”

In another video following the same template, a voice making racist slurs against Black and Latino students says the “KKK legacy will return.” Other videos show an animated version of George Fischer Middle School as the scene of a video game where a shooter runs into the building and begins firing at Black and Brown students.

It used to take weeks of intense computer analysis to make a deepfake, but now with smartphone apps, online harassment and disinformation may get much worse. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

After the deepfakes began popping up online, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office was contacted immediately, Zehr would later say. But while the sheriff’s office closed the case Feb. 13, finding that the high-schoolers had not committed any crimes and that students were never in danger, the district did not immediately inform parents of those developments.

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Two days after the investigation concluded, the school district put out a statement condemning “the blatant racism, hatred and disregard for humanity” displayed in the videos. But the statement did not address the specifics in the videos, or what Santana and other parents considered to be potential threats against students of color.

Then, on Feb. 16, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office deputies would investigate another threat, following a teacher’s concerns over a student’s drawing at an elementary school in the district. But although parents saw news crews and sheriff’s vehicles outside of the school, they say they were not given any information about the drawing, what it depicted or whether it meant students were in danger.

On Feb. 28 and March 1, Carmel Central hosted a set of forums with families and law enforcement officials to discuss school safety. But after breaking into groups, Santana said she and other parents were left with “more questions than answers.”

“Those meetings felt like a bunch of kumbaya and trying to brush up what happened without addressing the giant elephant in the room: How do we know our children are safe, and how do we know this won’t happen again?” Santana said.

Finally, on March 8, parents got another letter outlining how law enforcement investigated the two incidents, as well as plans for improving safety and communication.

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Santana said while the situations were troubling enough as-is, she was more bothered by the “hush-hush way” they were handled, leaving parents to speculate about the presence of reporters and deputies at their children’s schools for over three weeks.

“Parents had no idea about these videos, and they never told us what the issue was at the elementary school. They took away important and necessary context from the letters they sent and left us with a very vague message at the end. It truly felt like they were trying to sweep everything under a rug,” she said.

In the letters to parents, Zehr said disciplinary action was taken against the high school students who made the deepfake videos but added that she couldn’t provide details, citing privacy laws. Law enforcement officials determined that the students’ actions didn’t break any laws, the superintendent added.

Santana, who’s lived in Putnam County for 27 years, said she’s faced racism in the predominantly White community, but hoped for better for her child.

The videos have taken a toll on her 10-year-old, Santana said. Her child, she said, was always excited to go to school — even waking up early in anticipation. Not anymore.

I don’t want to go to school. I’m scared and no one understands.

I just want to go home. I feel nervous and anxious. Please, could someone pick me up?

“These are the texts I’m getting from my kid now,” Santana said.