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Alta High incident overblown, friends, parents of accused student say

SANDY — Members of the school community and beyond are still reacting to claims of racism within Alta High School where two administrators remained on leave Tuesday following a district investigation.

Principal Mont Widerberg and vice principal Mark Montague were placed on paid leave Monday, said Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook. Ray Jenson, a former Alta teacher and administrator at Bingham High, will fill in during the interim.

The investigation pertains to "serious incidents" that have taken place at the school over the past year that were uncovered recently, Toomer-Cook said, declining to elaborate. As of last week, the district office of civil rights was looking into accusations of racism among the student body.

Larz Cosby, a junior, received widespread attention for a blog post he wrote March 18 claiming that a fellow student at his school donned a white mask, reminiscent of a KKK hood, during a school spirit rally. Cosby, who is multiracial, was offended by the action.

In a strongly-worded district letter to the public, Superintendent David Doty and School Board President Tracy Cowdell stated Tuesday: "Our examination of the events at the school that day has uncovered evidence of other very serious incidents that warrant immediate and thorough attention, including appropriate administrative action pending the results of the investigation."

The parents of the accused student said Tuesday the event was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. The boy was dressed up in all-white — his class color — to show class pride. Sophomores wear red, juniors wear white and seniors wear black to the Spirit Bowl. The parents said he was chanting "white power" with members of the junior class in opposition to the students cheering "black power."

They said their son also momentarily wore a white pillowcase another student brought to school, which was a poor choice, but wasn't intended to be racist or invoke any KKK connections.

Some students reacted in kind, saying the incident doesn't warrant the kind of attention it has received.

"I think it's been overdone a lot more than it really was," said Alex Milner, a student at Alta.

Ryan Jensen said Cosby's claim the stunt was directed at him are false.

"He just got up and kind of pointed at the seniors and he ran around the gym," said Ryan Jensen of his friend. "He didn't direct it to any individuals."

It had everything to do with the spirit rally and nothing to do with racism, said Ammon Barker. "You make costumes for the thing, just try to show as much school spirit as you can," he said. "They misinterpreted it."

Others wished an adult would have stepped in during the assembly instead of waiting until after.

"It wasn't right of our administration to just stand there and let it happen," said Erin Foster, a student at the school.

Still others say the matter is part of a larger discussion.

When asked about racism in schools, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday it's important that Utahns be welcoming to everyone.

"I know there's some tension in different areas. That happens throughout America. It ought not to be," Herbert said while signing the eduction budget bill into law at Taylorsville Elementary. "We ought to do everything we can to make sure that we are a warm and friendly and loving people."

The student accused of wearing the white accessory during the assembly had a hearing with the district Tuesday to determine if he would be expelled from school, his parents said. He has tried to apologize several times for his bad decision, they said, and they hope the district will allow the student, who was temporarily suspended, back in school. The results of the hearing were not known Tuesday evening.

The recent events have caught the attention of people beyond the Wasatch Front. The Department of Justice contacted Canyons officials and offered help and assistance in "making sure that we have a school and a school community that is free from discrimination," Toomer-Cook said.

The district has invited representatives from the DOJ's community outreach department to make a presentation to the school board next week.

"We would be very interested in hearing from them," Toomer-Cook said.

There was no indication of how long the district investigation will take, Toomer-Cook said, or when the school's principal and vice principal will be brought back. But in the meantime, the district plans on taking other proactive action, as detailed in the district's open letter. Officials plan on meeting with every Language Arts class in the district to discuss their role in creating a safe school environment as well as informing them of their duty to alert administrators of civil right violations.

Contributing: Jennifer Stagg