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‘Insensitive’ and ‘inappropriate’ costumes worn by Idaho school staff prompts investigation

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 2, 2018

By Emily Lowe Idaho Press

MIDDLETON, Idaho — Middleton School District administrators are responding to a wave of complaints about school staff’s racially insensitive costumes worn at school on Halloween.

A photo showing a group of Middleton Heights Elementary staff donned in patriotic attire standing behind a fake brick wall with the words “Make America Great Again” was posted on the Middleton School District’s Facebook page Thursday night. Alongside was another photo of a group of teachers wearing sombreros and mustaches and holding maracas. The post, which included a range of staff costume photos, has since been removed from the district’s Facebook page.

A parent alerted Superintendent Josh Middleton of the concern over the costumes Thursday, according to a statement he released Friday morning in a video posted to Facebook.

“I was shown the photos and am deeply troubled by the decision by staff members to wear costumes that clearly are insensitive and inappropriate regardless of the context,” he said.

The Middleton School District Board of Trustees has scheduled a special meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, in the District Office Board Room at 5 S. Viking Ave. in Middleton.

“On behalf of the Middleton School District, I share sincerest apologies for these insensitive actions and offending our families and patrons,” Middleton said. “Again, we are better than this.”

Middleton said in a Facebook live video addressing the costumes that he does not believe staff did it maliciously, though he absolutely called it a “poor judgment.”

Local advocate Elizabeth Almanza disagrees. She’s a member of PODER (Protecting our Dreams and Empowering Resilience) of Idaho, a community advocacy group on behalf of undocumented people and immigrants. She hopes further action is taken than just acknowledging it on social media.

“These photos are extremely disheartening. ALL children should have the right to a learning environment that celebrates all backgrounds,” Almanza wrote on Facebook. “Imagine how some of the students felt when they walked into their classrooms on Halloween and saw their teachers (people they look up to) dressed like this? This is NOT funny. This is heartbreaking. Students deserve better.”

A petition created Friday calling for action on behalf of the Middleton School District had more than 2,000 signatures by 7 p.m. The petition demands that steps be taken to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

Nampa resident Estefania Mondragon created the petition after hearing about the incident. The immigration activist and member of PODER of Idaho said it reminded her of being a student in Canyon County and being told not to speak Spanish in class.

“I thought that era of discrimination had passed,” Mondragon told the Idaho Press. “I can’t imagine being a student right now and realizing those are elementary school teachers, I am just sickened.”

The school district has not released any information about potential disciplinary actions against the teachers involved.

A statement posted on the Heights Elementary homepage addressed to parents that the district is currently investigating the events leading to the incident and that the investigation will hopefully be concluded by Monday, Nov. 5.

“The district as a whole is receiving publicity that is judging our schools and community on the events of that afternoon into a negative, broad generalization,” said superintendent Middleton. “I know we are better than that literal snapshot, but in the meantime we need to continue our investigation.”

Middleton states that the district’s Crisis Team will be in use on Monday and that despite the incident, the continued learning of students is their first priority.

In a Facebook post, the Middleton Police Department said that they were notified about the incident and have increased patrols and presence at the school to “ensure safety, security and hope for a peaceful resolution”.

For Theodore Cardenas management assistant for Boise State’s College Assistance Migrant Program, the “costume choices are in extremely poor judgement” but he does not think “the teachers should be fired.”

In a letter to the editor sent to the Idaho Press Friday, Cardenas, who described himself as a Mexican-American conservative, said the staff involved should be required to volunteer at Treasure Valley organizations that assist the Latino population.

“Then they can see the real struggle of the parents of the children they teach,” he wrote in the letter. “They can teach those real life lessons to future generations of American students that Americans of Mexican descent are hardworking, patriotic people and we are not here to ‘invade.’”

According to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, 12 percent of students at Heights Elementary has are Hispanic. Millcreek Elementary’s Hispanic population is 8.3 percent, 19 percent of Purple Sage students are Hispanic, 12 percent of the Middleton Middle School’s population is Hispanic and 11 percent Middleton High School’s students are Hispanic. Middleton’s population of 7,500 is 9.5 percent Hispanic, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Idaho Commission of Human Rights released a statement Friday calling for the enforcement of the Idaho Human Rights Act of 1969 preventing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin — including within educational environments.

“Discrimination under these acts can occur when an employer or school allows a hostile environment to exist against persons because of their race, sex and national origin…” the commission said in the release. “Simply because conduct takes place as a so-called joke does not excuse otherwise unlawful conduct.”

The Middleton School District also has a migrant education program, which Idaho students qualify for if they’ve moved in the last three years and their family works in agriculture.

By Friday afternoon, news of the staff’s costume choice had made national news. Meanwhile, Idahoans clashed on social media about whether or not the costume choice was a bad decision.

A photo making the rounds on social media suggested that Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra was at the elementary school on Wednesday, the day staff dressed up. However, Ybarra’s campaign manager Tyler Kelly said the photo was taken last year.

Idaho Press reporter Nicole Foy contributed to this report.

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