While Alta High School student Larz Cosby may be oversensitive and over-reacting to the incident in which a White student wore a Klan hood as a joke connected with the school's Spirit Day, there may be a foundation for his sensitivity. On March 28th, 2011, the Canyons School District announced that Alta Principal Mont Widerberg and Vice-Principal Mark Montague have been placed on paid leave while the investigation of the incident continues. The district claims to have uncovered evidence of other "serious incidents" that have occurred at the school over the past year. The acting principal will be Ray Jenson, a previous Alta teacher and coach who left the school to pursue a career in administration.
Tony Romanello, a science teacher at Alta High and president of the Canyons Education Association, explained that whenever an allegation is made against any school employee, it is standard procedure to put them on paid administrative leave with pay, so the suspension of the principal and the vice-principal is not to be viewed as a judgment on their culpability. The student wearing the mask has now been reported by the Salt Lake Tribune to have been suspended for seven days; he returned to school on March 30th. The student is scheduled for a hearing with the district on Tuesday April 5th where it will be determined if he is expelled from school. Both the student and Cosby are reportedly LDS.
A day later, the story continues to escalate. The parents of the student who was wearing the hood have spoken out, and say the incident has been blown out of proportion. While their son was wearing a white pillowcase on his head at several points during the spirit assembly, which they concede was inappropriate, he never meant for it to be a reference to the Klan. The assembly in which this incident happened is called the "Spirit Bowl," and it's an assembly where each class dresses in their school colors: red for sophomores, white for juniors and black for seniors. Each year at the assembly, classes compete in games and dress wildly in their respective colors. So when the juniors were chanting "White Power", it wasn't exactly like a National Socialist Movement rally; it was merely an expression of junior class pride. KSL news video embedded below (after the jump):
KSTU Channel 13 has filed two video reports; the main report is embedded below:
People are sharply divided over this issue, as revealed not only by the 858 comments posted to Larz Cosby's blog about the incident, but also on this unscientific poll currently run by KSL. It's almost a three-way split between three different points of view. Out of 2,403 responses so far:
-- It’s all a misunderstanding: 33 percent (795 votes)
-- He acted out of ignorance, but it’s still wrong: 34 percent (812 votes)
-- This kind of behavior is never OK: 33 percent (796 votes)
Zach Larsen, a junior at Alta, had a particularly thoughtful reaction. He said the incident has made the differences between black and white students at Alta High more apparent. "Before this incident we were Alta High School students," he said. "Now, it’s kind of [this] realization that there’s white people and then there’s black people … I think this needs to be fixed because I think, in a sense, the way it’s been handled could cause racism in the long run." He's right about the last part; some of that backlash has already shown up in the comments section of Larz Cosby's blog with people using racial slurs.
Local professional race hustlers are already lining up to exploit the situation. Salt Lake NAACP overseer Jeanetta Williams referred to the incident as an "act of terror". But we've come to expect hyperbole from her; she's the one who went ballistic over a simple "black baby" remark from Senator Chris Buttars and turned it into a cause célèbre. And Richard Gomez, educational equity coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education, claims what happened at Alta High is just the "tip of the iceberg".
Larz Cosby's father, Sam Cosby, has started his own blog, and posted the following reaction:
"I realize some students and parents feel that the situation was blown out of proportion. Personally, I don’t feel that this is the case. A line on appropriate and inappropriate behavior needs to be drawn. I believe that Canyons School Districts investigation will determine what needs to happen. We should allow them the time to deal with the situation and make any actions they deem suitable. I give them my support and vote of confidence".
Nevertheless, placing both the principal and assistant principal on paid leave, even if it is standard practice, tarnishes them with the "guilt" brush without due process. The fact that they're still getting paid doesn't totally mitigate the situation. Obviously, these guys had a different definition of racism than the professional racemongers at the district level. I trust that the district will recognize and respect the difference between a legitimate investigation and a full-blown witch hunt.