School staff put on leave over cos­tumes

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL KATZ Mkatz@ida­hostates­man.com

Mid­dle­ton School Dis­trict Su­per­in­ten­dent Josh Mid­dle­ton an­nounced Satur­day morn­ing at a spe­cial school board meet­ing that 14 em­ploy­ees in­volved in con­tro­ver­sial Hal­loween pho­tos cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia have been placed on paid ad­min­is­tra­tive leave.

Af­ter Su­per­in­ten­dent Mid­dle­ton’s an­nounce­ment, the board went into ex­ec­u­tive ses­sion. Af­ter­ward, a state­ment was read, and it was an­nounced that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion would be con­tin­u­ing.

The board did not take ques­tions af­ter read­ing its state­ment.

“This type of be­hav­ior has no place in ed­u­ca­tion and cer­tainly is not tol­er­ated here at Mid­dle­ton School Dis­trict. This sit­u­a­tion is be­ing taken very se­ri­ously. We are in full sup­port of our su­per­in­ten­dent and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff as a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion is be­ing con­ducted, and are await­ing the re­sults of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” the state­ment reads, in part. “This is an un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent of very poor judg­ment. Yet it is not in­dica­tive of the Mid­dle­ton School Dis­trict or our teach­ers as a whole.”

Su­per­in­ten­dent Mid­dle­ton also an­nounced that a mem­ber of the dis­trict’s cri­sis team would be tak­ing over day-to­day prin­ci­pal du­ties at Mid­dle­ton Heights for the time be­ing.

On Fri­day, pho­tos of Mid­dle­ton Heights El­e­men­tary staff don­ning Hal­loween cos­tumes that por­trayed a border wall read­ing “Make Amer­ica Great Again” and stereo­typed Mex­i­cans emerged on so­cial me­dia. The pho­tos, which were posted on the school dis­trict’s Face­book page, went vi­ral.

Fol­low­ing an up­roar on­line, Su­per­in­ten­dent Mid­dle­ton posted a video re­sponse on Face­book on Fri­day morn­ing. As of this writ­ing the video, as well as the en­tire dis­trict Face­book page, has been taken down. The ad­min­is­tra­tion sec­tion of Mid­dle­ton Heights’ web­site is also un­avail­able.

“We are bet­ter than this,” he said in the video. “We em­brace all stu­dents. We have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to teach and reach all stu­dents — pe­riod.”

Sev­eral ad­vo­cacy groups and non­prof­its, in­clud­ing the ACLU of Idaho and Im­mi­grant Jus­tice Idaho, de­nounced the pho­tos in a let­ter to the su­per­in­ten­dent on Fri­day af­ter­noon, per pre­vi­ous States­man re­port­ing.

“The in­tent or mis­judg­ments of the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved does not undo the trauma ex­pe­ri­enced by stu­dents, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties,” the let­ter reads. “The im­pact on these stu­dents does not stay only with them but has last­ing ef­fects be­yond the school or class­room. We be­lieve the school and class­rooms have now be­come hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments that are not con­ducive to the ed­u­ca­tion of the stu­dents.”

Ac­cord­ing to data from the U.S cen­sus, Mid­dle­ton has a Latino pop­u­la­tion of 9.5 per­cent, while Mid­dle­ton Heights El­e­men­tary is 12.9 per­cent His­panic/latino, ac­cord­ing to Idaho Ed Trends.

The pic­tures and sub­se­quent back­lash come as Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions ap­proach, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has worked to make im­mi­gra­tion a theme. Trump has said, “I don’t want them in this coun­try,” in re­gards to a car­a­van of mi­grants seek­ing asy­lum com­ing through Mex­ico to­ward the U.S. border.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Mid­dle­ton also an­nounced on Satur­day that ad­di­tional mea­sures would be taken in the com­ing days, in­clud­ing in­creased se­cu­rity and ad­min­is­tra­tion at Mid­dle­ton Heights, and staff sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing. The dis­trict cri­sis team would be on the cam­pus for “so­cial-emo­tional well-be­ing,” he said.

A hand­ful of con­cerned adults at­tended Satur­day’s meet­ing, with most feel­ing the ac­tions of the staff were in poor taste.

Mered­ith St. Clair, a Mid­dle­ton res­i­dent who spent 28 years as a teacher in pub­lic schools, wrote the board a let­ter, though she was un­able to read it to them. In it, she de­scribes her dis­may; upon see­ing the news last night, St. Clair said that her “stom­ach got phys­i­cally ill.”

“I hold the pro­fes­sional stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion very high and take it very, very se­ri­ously. And I feel that ev­ery­one does have a right to free speech and their own be­liefs, po­lit­i­cally and oth­er­wise, but we can­not bring these into the class­room. That is not our goal of ed­u­ca­tion,” St. Clair told the States­man. “If we’re do­ing this overtly, what are the covert, the un­der­ly­ing mes­sages, that are be­ing sent to these chil­dren on a daily ba­sis?”

Roberta Rus­sell, a Boise par­ent who drove 30 or so miles to Satur­day’s meet­ing, said there is no ex­cuse for the staff’s ac­tions. That in­cludes who­ever posted the con­tent on the dis­trict’s so­cial me­dia page.

Rus­sell, who has a ju­nior high-age daugh­ter, said it is hard to teach re­spect to a teenager when ed­u­ca­tors fal­ter.

“I came be­cause I wanted to ob­serve the process and see how they were go­ing to han­dle this in­ci­dent, which has brought na­tional at­ten­tion to Idaho in a not-so-pos­i­tive light, once again,” Rus­sell said. “I don’t be­lieve there is an ex­cuse … at a min­i­mum, it‘s a huge er­ror in judg­ment by these ed­u­ca­tors.”

The next Mid­dle­ton School Dis­trict board meet­ing is set for Nov. 12.

KATY MOELLER kmoeller@ida­hostates­man.com

Mid­dle­ton Heights El­e­men­tary will have some­one from the dis­trict’s cri­sis team tak­ing over prin­ci­pal du­ties while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Hal­loween con­tro­versy con­tin­ues.

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