Utah teens wearing blackface went viral. An unrelated community hundreds of miles away fielded the backlash
Thousands of people took their anger out on the wrong students, at the wrong school
By Tuesday evening, Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain, Utah, had received over 1,500 calls and 3,000 emails, shutting down its phone system and leaving staff in a frenzy.
Thousands of comments stacked up at the bottom of its Facebook posts. The school district, the local sheriff’s office, the principal and dozens of other people associated with the school fielded threatening texts, voicemails and social media messages. And a handful of Cedar Valley students stayed home, afraid to go outside.
“Heartbreaking is the best way to describe Nov. 1, 2022,” said Cedar Valley Principal Courtney Johnson.
“To say that yesterday was chaotic is an understatement,” added David Stephenson, a spokesperson for Alpine School District.
About 12 hours earlier and 230 miles away, a group of teens dressed as inmates and wearing blackface walked into a Cedar City Walmart and were approached by a stranger. She filmed a now viral video that racked up millions of views across several social media platforms and earned condemnation from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, the NAACP and scores of other prominent groups and leaders.
The Iron County School District is conducting an ongoing investigation, but said on Wednesday that the three young people who wore blackface as part of their Halloween costumes are not enrolled in any district schools.
People were angry — rightfully so, says Spencer Cannon with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
But thousands of people Tuesday took their anger out on the wrong students, at the wrong school.
“It’s something to be mad about, I get that. But it was totally misdirected,” Cannon said on Wednesday.
It’s unclear exactly how or why the rumors started. It likely stems from confusion over the fact that Cedar Valley High School is located not in Cedar City, but on the other end of the state in Eagle Mountain. Or, it could be that Cedar Valley High School and Canyon View High School, which is in Cedar City, share the same acronym.
Early on Tuesday morning, several hours after the now deleted video was uploaded to TikTok, comments named two students at Cedar Valley and claimed they were the teens participating in the racist Halloween costume. Others found the email and phone extensions of staff at Cedar Valley.
A verified TikTok account under the username AuntKaren0 also posted a video naming the students and telling followers they attended Cedar Valley. The video has now been deleted, and an updated video where the user suggests the teens were from Canyon View was uploaded in its place.
Then, two Instagram accounts tied to the students started gaining traction — one was created Tuesday, and the other only has three posts, two of which came in the wake of the viral video. Both accounts posted apologies.
Sources close to the family told the Deseret News at least one of the accounts is fake. The bogus profile took things a step further by tagging the handle of the Cedar Valley Mountain Bike Team, which one of the wrongly accused students is associated with.
An investigation conducted by the Alpine School District and the Utah County Sheriff’s Office would later find the students identified were either at work or with family on Halloween, far away from the Cedar City Walmart.
But that did little to quell the massive wave of online condemnation that hit Eagle Mountain on Tuesday.
By 7 a.m., mountain bike coach Adam Clark started seeing comments on the team’s Instagram page. Within hours, the posts had hundreds of comments. “I hope he hangs himself,” one of them read.
“They just started going after him, his dates, his friends. Anyone associated with him, so we had at least three kids that stayed home from school, just hiding away out of fear,” Clark said.
Clark himself got calls and texts. “So do you hate all black people, too?” one person asked before hanging up. Another man texted Clark a picture of his genitals.
The phones at Cedar Valley rang all day, shutting down the system and preventing staff from making outside calls. Emails and messages continued to pour in to both the school and district offices on Wednesday.
“How do I decipher school-related emails versus hate-filled messages geared at our school, students and families? It’s going to take some time to wade through,” said Johnson, the school’s principal.
“Every inappropriate word and every type of inappropriate language was used for the entire day yesterday,” Stephenson added.
The Cedar Valley High School Facebook page was flooded, forcing it to limit comments as well. Users tanked the school’s Facebook rating, leaving hundreds of reviews.
“Super racist school and community. White supremacist haven in Utah,” wrote one person, while another posted “Ready for the storm that’s about to hit. Your students just made you famous.”
By mid-afternoon, the rumor gained traction not just among angry, quasi-anonymous Twitter and Facebook users, but public-facing Utahns as well. Multiple professors tweeted about the rumor that the teens were Cedar Valley students, including one who identified them by name.
Johnson says the wave of emails, calls and messages is waning, but hasn’t stopped. Same with the Alpine School District, and the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.
The wounds to the incorrectly identified students and their families cut deep, Johnson says.
“Can you imagine having your life turned upside down because your name and personal information were put out on social media being falsely accused of something?” she said on Wednesday.
“Social media and uninformed, vindictive people have essentially made an enormous error just by sharing and commenting on misinformation. The impact of these blunders will have lasting effects on these students. Hatred and intolerance are wrong in all forms.”