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Polson Superintendent On Moving Forward After Rally For Racial Understanding

A high school homecoming football game on the Flathead Indian Reservation drew fans and protesters alike Friday night. A crowd of about 50 people amassed against the outer fence surrounding the football stadium during halftime.
Nicky Ouellet
A high school homecoming football game on the Flathead Indian Reservation drew fans and protesters alike Friday night. A crowd of about 50 people amassed against the outer fence surrounding the football stadium during halftime.

School administrators in Polson are figuring out how to move forward, after pictures of two students wearing t-shirts with a Confederate flag and "white power" slogans to a school event garnered national attention last week.

Last Thursday, two Polson High School students wore handmade t-shirts saying "white power" and "Trump 2016 white pride" to a school pep rally event called "Color Wars," where students wear certain colors to show class spirit. The two juniors were on the white team.

They changed when asked by school administration, but photos had already circulated widely on social media. That sparked a rally during halftime of the homecoming game Friday, which drew roughly 50 protesters and another 50 onlookers, separated by the stadium’s outer fence. The rally lasted a little longer than halftime, and then people calmly dispersed.

Back at school on Monday, Superintendent of Polson Public Schools Rex Weltz is taking stock of last week’s aftermath.

"I visited with the high school again this morning and counseling department. Kids seem to be in a pretty good spot right now ... They know what's going on, obviously. And I think that's the great thing about where we’re at. It is on the front burner to them, we're going to get some good communication from them."

For Weltz, the question is, how does the school move forward?

Last Thursday, the school district announced the it would take "appropriate action." Today, Weltz said that could include adopting a pre-made curriculum about racial diversity and discrimination, but more likely, the school will bring community members and groups into the classroom.

"We've had an outcry of people that want to help and support and come in and visit … It’s an amazing building with great kids in it, but they do make bad choices. Some of that's learned behavior and that's our job as an educator is to help educate tolerance, and how to get along, and that people have voices and your actions might offend others and be cognizant of what that looks like."

Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, says education is a good start.

"I would hope that the school would use this as an opportunity for some ongoing dialogue that, frankly, should be happening regularly … To discipline a couple students about a dress code violation is not going to address the clear racial tensions that we have between the communities."

Caitlin Borgmann, director of the Montana ACLU.
Credit Photo Courtesy CUNY Law School
Caitlin Borgmann, director of the Montana ACLU.

On Friday, the ACLU of Montana announced it plans to investigate the incident at Polson High School. That means working with school administrators to improve school policies, while upholding students’ first amendment rights, and connecting the school with speakers.

Borgmann says it can be hard for anyone to see racial disparities and understand why certain symbols, like the Confederate Flag, are offensive to some people. She says opening dialogue in the classroom about racial discrimination is one way to prevent incidents like this from happening in the future.

"There are a lot of people who just want to ask questions and want to understand things, for example, why the slogan 'White Power' isn't the same as 'Native Lives Matter.' That's a question we shouldn't be afraid to have an open conversation about. I think many students are well intentioned but they don't have the facts or haven’t heard the perspective that will allow them to be more open minded and more respectful."

The difference between "White Power” and "Native Pride" was one of many questions students asked protesters at Friday night’s homecoming rally. The conversation that ensued is exactly what Borgmann hopes to see happening in this situation.

"The fact that those kind of productive conversations happened at the rally is a really hopeful thing that came out of an ugly incident. And the school should absolutely pick up on that and continue carrying it forward."

On Monday, Superintendent Weltz drafted a student perception survey. He says understanding how students are feeling and what they want to talk about is crucial to moving forward.

"We're gonna talk about what it is, first of all, that we envision. What are we looking for, what do we want to accomplish?"

He says part of the problem last week was that the photos, snapped on cell phones, spread widely on social media without any context or fact-checking. One version of the photo had a caption that said Polson High School allowed the students to wear the shirts — which he says is "absolutely not true."

Part of moving forward means taking a look at how the school teaches responsible use of cellphones and social media.

"I love our opportunity to work with kids and teach those pieces. Not only the Xs and Os of curriculum but really the social dynamics and the tapestry of what it looks like to be a productive citizen. The soft skills, how we deal with people and how we interact with people."

In terms of teachable moments, this may be an ugly one. But Weltz sees opportunity for growth and creating a stronger community.

"Sometimes the hard things are the right things, and I think that's where we're at right now."

Weltz didn’t give a specific timeline, but says he’s already initiated the student perception survey that will help guide how faculty and staff proceed. The ACLU of Montana hopes to work with Polson School District in that process.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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