School officials say six seniors at Desert Vista High School are "exceptionally remorseful" after posing for a picture that has now gone viral.
"I am incredibly incredibly sorry. I have love for everyone in my heart. I am not a racist and I am asking everyone for forgiveness," said one of the seniors, Rachel Steigerwald.
The photo, which shows the girls spelling out a racial slur, has sparked outrage at the Ahwatukee school, and prompted both district leaders and protesters to speak out.
"We will not tolerate anyone promoting any type of hate or using any type of slur," Tempe Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Baca said during a Monday press conference. "We are outraged and saddened."
The press conference was followed by a protest outside the school with civil rights leaders.
In the photo, six girls are seen grouped together smiling while "N-I-*-*-E-R" is spelled out in individual gold letters across their shirts.
The students were part of a larger message spelling out "BEST*YOU'VE*EVER*SEEN*CLASS*OF*2016" before mixing up their letters to spell out the slur.
Desert Vista students were playing "human Scrabble" with letter shirts when slur photo was taken, according to school officials #abc15
— Melissa Blasius (@MelissaBlasius) January 25, 2016
Asst. Superintendent of District Operations Dr. Anna Battle said the students rearranged for the photo to be sent to one of the girl's boyfriends. The image was reportedly intended as a shoutout and not as a derogatory message.
Battle said the teens were "exceptionally remorseful, as were their parents."
When asked about disciplinary action, Baca would not confirm the girls' punishments, saying they have a right to due process as the incident is investigated. He said the students did not receive a five-day suspension, as has been rumored since the image began going viral on Friday. But the girls were asked not to return to the school until further notice.
During the Monday news conference, student Alyssa Stiggers, with the school's Black Student Union, said the incident has served as a call to action. Students and teachers are now teaming up for an educational campaign called "Spread the word to end the N-word."
"We have to do something," Stiggers said.
Thunder Media students at Desert Vista High School created this video in response to the incident: