Cache County School District Superintendent Steve Norton has pledged to study and then take “concrete steps” after two Sky View High School students donned offensive Halloween costumes for school, followed by even louder community uproar over a music video shown at a subsequent school assembly intended to promote mutual respect and unity.
During an emotional meeting Thursday evening, Norton said he plans to conduct a retreat “to talk about what we heard tonight and reflect on where we need to go as a district and what plans we have to address the concerns that were raised tonight.”
Parents, students and community members addressed the board about the recent events as well as about what their children of color and diverse sexual identities experience in Cache School District schools.
“It’s not a good feeling to know that some of our kids might not be having a good experience in our schools, for whatever reason. We’ll be getting back with you with some concrete things that we’re going to do,” Norton said.
The monthlong controversy began to simmer in late October when two students at Sky View High School in Smithfield wore offensive costumes to school: one donned a KKK-like robe and hood, while the other came to class in blackface makeup.
The student in the KKK costume “was stopped upon entering the school and taken to the office, where he removed the costume and was educated as to why such a costume would be highly offensive to members of the school community,” Norton said.
The other student, who is white, dressed as a basketball player and wore blackface and a bald cap. He “was referred to the office where administrators worked with the student and his parents discussing why this was offensive to others,” Norton said.
But this wasn’t until after the student had appeared on stage during the school’s Halloween assembly.
Norton said the incident prompted Sky View administrators to conduct a diversity assembly on Nov. 23, “with the intent of promoting mutual respect, understanding and unity.”
Jackie Thompson, who had worked in the Cache School District as its director of education equity before she retired in 2018, was invited to speak at the assembly. Thompson was recently named assistant superintendent of the Davis School District and is overseeing the district’s response to a two-year Department of Justice investigation that revealed “serious and widespread racial harassment” of Black and Asian American students. Her presentation to students in Cache County occurred before she started her new position.
From many reports, Thompson’s message in the assembly was well delivered and well received by students,” Norton said.
But within an hour of the assembly’s conclusion, the school district began receiving phone calls from concerned parents about a country music video titled “400 Years,” by Gregory S. Miller, which was part of Thompson’s presentation.
The video depicts historical footage from the civil rights era and Minneapolis police officers watching as former officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, as well as dramatized footage of race-based violence, harassment and discriminatory policing.
Norton said after listening to parent feedback, Sky View High School Principal Michael Monson wrote a letter “apologizing for showing a video that was not previewed ahead of time and proved to be more divisive than unifying.”
Speaking during Thursday’s meeting, Justice Smith, the parent of three biracial school-age children who have shared experiences of hearing the N-word while they have ridden in the district’s school buses, said for students to come to school dressed as a Klansman or in blackface was “shocking” and “disheartening for us because of the fact they feel they can do that.”
He questioned why there was more outcry over the school’s educational efforts than the precipitating events.
“The outcry should have been more in the beginning phases with those individuals coming to the school as opposed to the education piece,” he said.
Mario Mathis, representing Black Lives Matter Utah, said regardless of one’s race, background or religion, community members should be distressed that two students thought it was OK to wear offensive costumes to school.
“Think about it, a young man wore a Klan suit to a school. That is a serious problem,” Mathis said. “You should be disappointed. This is a reflection of the parenting that goes on around here.”
Heather Moller, who works at Sky View High School, where her children are students, said the video shown at the diversity assembly was disturbing to her 17-year-old daughter.
“My daughter came home that day and said the video left her feeling ashamed to be white skinned and that police officers were inherently evil,” said Moller, addressing the school board.
Robert Clinton, representing Cache Parents United, a local unit of the conservative parent organization Utah Parents United, said he watched the video “and found it to be divisive, wholly inappropriate and should not be used.”
Some parents questioned whether the video violated a recently passed state school board rule that specifies what cannot be taught in schools about diversity and equity.
Others urged the board to focus on the impacts to the students who were hurt and offended by their classmates’ costumes.
Manny Martins, father of a junior at Sky View High, whom he described as a “strong young lady,” said she sobbed into the phone as she pleaded with him to leave work and pick her up following the Halloween assembly because she was so distressed by what had transpired.
Martins, who is a soccer coach, said when he looks across the pitch “I can usually tell what their coach is like based on how their team plays or behaves. So I challenge you to look at your school district and understand that it’s a reflection on you. Everything that’s happening, it’s a reflection on you,” Martins said.
Smith asked whether the school circled back to the students who were affected by the events of Oct. 29.
“Those kids are the ones that need to be followed up with to make sure that they’re OK because this was offensive to them and it was offensive to me,” he said.
Several people who addressed the board shared their experiences as people of color who grew up in Cache County or as parents raising children of color who have been subjected to racial epithets at school or had their hair touched by other students without their consent.
“While in class, supposedly supervised by teachers, my kids had to be slaves and slave owners to celebrate Black history month in school,” said parent and longtime school volunteer Alean Hunt.
“White privilege means that your life has not been made more difficult because of your skin color, full stop. This board has a duty to ensure that schools are safe for all students, especially the most vulnerable among them. They are not. People are failing at their job and have failed for many years and it is time and past time for accountability. Superintendent Norton, that accountability starts with you,” Hunt said.
Katie Shoemaker, a mother of three who works for the school district, said students of color, LGBTQI students, and students of different abilities are not getting the support they deserve educationally and emotionally.
“Every child deserves to feel loved and safe when they come to school and many of our children do not. Because in the hallways and in the classrooms, they have racial slurs thrown at them, homophobic comments and bigotry,” she said.
Her own child has been told she will “burn in hell” because she is gay. A child who had a crush on a male classmate was told he was not to talk about it because he is also a boy.
“When racism and homophobia happen, we have to address it with the same ferocity that is thrown at our children every day. It is nice that we are addressing it now but it is happening every day. Every child deserves an education curriculum and programs that foster their unique life experiences,” she said.
Norton said the school district is committed to following applicable state law and State School Board rules and standards as well as principles of transparency that ensure that educational content is age appropriate.
“Further, the district plans to reach out and meet with teachers, parents and students to better understand and address the challenges and difficulties related to race and racism in our schools,” he said.
Board member Chris Corcoran said it is important that the school board, as “the public-facing entity of the district,” work in partnership with the administration to address the concerns raised by parents with respect to recent events but also what happens daily in the district’s schools.
“We do have a responsibility and I hope that we don’t just take this public comment and just move ahead. I hope that we do something constructive in partnership,” Corcoran said.
Board President Teri Rhodes expressed her gratitude to all who attended the meeting and “worked hard to control their very strong emotions so that we could all sit in the room together and have a discussion. It will be good because we will move forward in positive ways. We can only do that from here. Anything else would be failing and we don’t fail in Cache.”