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Teen cheerleader blunder offers a teachable moment in world that's forgetting hard-won lessons

A lot of things are said in jest when you're meeting a rival for a football game. But good-natured in intent or not, sometimes things go too far. That happened last week in Hillsboro, Ohio, where cheerleaders reduced a tragic and hateful moment in American history to a one-liner on the football field.

Thanks to social media and the ease with which we circulate each others' clever or awful communications, most of America knows about the "Trail of Tears" banner some cheerleaders revealed at a football game. The cheer squad at Greenfield-McClain High School held up a banner that read, "Hey, Indians, Get Ready for a Trail of Tears Part 2." They were referring to the Hillsboro High mascot.

It raises two questions: How could a group of high school students know so little about the Trail of Tears that they failed to see how despicable the sign's content and context was? And how can it be turned into a teachable moment that's helpful in a bigger sense?

Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which led to a land "exchange" where tribes were stripped of claims to ancestral lands east of the Mississippi and given instead "Indian Territory" further west, in what later became Oklahoma. It didn't matter that the exchange was repugnant to most of those being relocated. Estimates are that 4,000 Cherokee died of hunger, exposure and starvation during the forced relocation. It was a human tragedy on a large scale.

To say that it's not appropriate fodder for a sporting event taunt would be an understatement — and the high school administration realized that. According to the Associated Press, the Greenfield-McClain High principal, Jason Potts, sent an email apology to Hillsboro newspapers. "It pledged that the school would partner with local organizations to further educate students about 'atrocities faced by both the Native American and African-American cultures,'" AP reported.

It also pledged "appropriate action," which is really the crux of the matter.

If I were principal for a day there, the students involved would be doing some hard-core studying of what happened during the Trail of Tears. They'd each write a lengthy essay and team up to teach a segment on the historical event to the entire student body, or they'd have to turn in their cheer gear. I'd say the school needs to beef up its history classes and empathy/sensitivity training.

Still, disgusting as it was, I doubt it was intended to be hateful in the same way that a recent "prank" in a locker room in Mississippi was. According to the Chicago Tribune, a black student, "a sophomore football player at Stone High School in Wiggins, Miss., was in a locker room on Oct. 13 when as many as four white students tossed a rope around his neck and pulled it tight."

That cannot be brushed away as simply foolish or ignorant. It was apparently a direct attack on an individual of color using a historically racist form of targeted terror that singled him out because he is black. Nor was it simply hurtful and hateful words, which are reason enough for punishment: The students reportedly actually put a rope around the young man's neck. I cannot imagine how that felt to him.

We can't tolerate that.

Neither event is something we can simply blame on the kids involved, either. It reflects a national problem surfacing among segments of our supposedly mature population. The resurgence of racist behaviors in this country should be loathsome to anyone who strives to be a decent human being. It arrives hand in hand with a general erosion of civility and it lessens all of us — and our standing in the world.

We're better than that.

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