Nearly a month after Big Sky High School students were subjected to a racial epithet by a substitute teacher, a student's family is frustrated by the ongoing silence surrounding the incident.
The morning of Tuesday, Nov. 22, students in a Big Sky sophomore English class had a substitute teacher for the day. Cipriano "CP" Gutierrez, 15, said their regular teacher had written on the board that the class was to do any work they had.
But Gutierrez said the substitute, a white man, began talking to the class about Star Wars, "and how it related to white supremacy and the KKK." He reportedly told the class they didn't have to talk about it if they didn't want to, so Gutierrez and his cousin, Manny Hernandez, stayed out of the conversation.
Gutierrez said the sub asked for fiction ideas, and wrote "Bible" on the board. Gutierrez erased it, and the sub wrote it again. Gutierrez, Hernandez and two other students got passes to go to the library.
After they left, the sub said Gutierrez and Hernandez "were acting like n------," according to a text Gutierrez received from a friend still in the class. When Gutierrez questioned the sub, he said the sub became angry.
Gutierrez went to the main office and he and Hernandez were asked to write down what happened. Gutierrez texted his mother, Mary Peters, asking her to come pick him up. Peters said she got a call from assistant principal Matt Clausen, too, informing her what had happened.
A day later, Missoula County Public Schools issued a news release vaguely describing the incident. It said the sub had been removed and Human Resources had launched an investigation. Because it is a personnel issue, the sub's name has not been released, nor have the results of the investigation.
Gutierrez said the sub would not tell the class his name, instead telling them to call him "Mr. C."
Peters said she hasn't heard anything since. She wants to know how the district screens and hires subs, and she wants to know the results of the investigation. She wants to know what happens now.
"I want to know the details so I can have peace of mind," she said. "I think they need to open up communication with parents more, and I'm an involved parent.
"I know he's not teaching in Missoula anymore, but I think he shouldn't be allowed to teach in Montana."
There are few requirements for substitute teachers in Montana, and in turn few ways to track or evaluate them.
"MCPS does not routinely conduct formal evaluations of substitute teachers," according to the substitute teacher's handbook, though teachers can fill out a form describing the sub's work.
State law says short-term subs don't need a current teaching license, though preference is often given to those who do. But just as there's a teacher shortage, there's a substitute shortage, said MEA-MFT board president Eric Feaver.
"Now, it is a fact in places like Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, that you will have qualified, licensed and endorsed teachers substituting because they want to or they're looking for a job," he said. "But as you get further out into Montana, it becomes an ever more difficult matter."
The man involved in the Big Sky incident was a short-term sub.
MCPS director of technology and communication Hatton Littman reaffirmed that he is no longer a sub with the district, but she did not know whether he had a teaching license.
MCPS director of human resources and labor relations David Rott was unavailable to comment on this incident, as well as the sub screening and hiring process, until Monday.
Feaver said the requirements to become a sub are "really just about if you can breathe in and out and have a high school diploma or GED and can pass a background check.''
"You could be employed, anybody could be employed, as a substitute teacher" after completing a minimum three-hour training, Feaver said.
Once a sub has taught in a classroom at least 35 consecutive days, they become a long-term sub – if they're licensed. At that point, the sub is "placed under contract on the first step of the teachers' salary schedule and will not receive insurance benefits from the district," according to the Missoula Education Association's collective bargaining agreement.
Substitute teachers need school board approval and they're placed on a call list.
According to an MCPS job posting, a substitute teacher makes $11.43 an hour and a four-year college degree is required.
"If we paid subs more, I think we would demand more," Feaver said.
Often, teachers develop working relationships with certain subs and create a preferred substitutes list. MCPS also has an option for teachers who never want certain subs in their classroom; in the absence management system, the teacher can select a sub's name and add them to an "excluded substitutes list."
"But they are at-will employees," Feaver said. "There's nothing that requires a school district under law to say anything but thank you for your service, and never hire them again. It's not the sort of thing that has just cause or due process. There's no organized substitute organization out there.
"Unless there's criminal activity, you're not going to know really anything about a sub going forward. If a teacher commits an egregious act and loses their license, it goes on the national registry and they're probably done forever in that profession. If a sub does that, if it's not a criminal matter or causes a civil lawsuit, it's pretty certain they could probably go anywhere they want."
If a sub's name is known, anyone can check the status of their teaching credentials online through the Office of Public Instruction. If they're not in this system, it doesn't necessarily mean the sub doesn't have a license. They could have one from another state but are working toward getting their Montana license.
"It should be somewhat comforting to know there are subs out there who do a good job," Feaver said. "But it's discomforting to know that we don't have a way to measure, over time, that instruction. It's a function of resource that should be obvious to everyone. Yet, we do need subs."
Gutierrez said the problems with racism at the school didn't start or end that day. He said he and his friends have been the subjects of other racist comments, and Gutierrez said he's endured bullying and racism in sports, as recently as last week.
"I don't want to go back," he said.
He's planning to switch to Sentinel High.
"I send my kids to school for a safe learning environment," Peters said. "And I hold educators at a higher level. This broke down that barrier of trust, in a sense, though I know not all teachers are like that.
"It just kind of knocked me off my feet to see that happen in Missoula."
Gutierrez was one of the Big Sky students to receive a Most Inspiring Student Award this spring. He said he struggled a bit in school this fall, but did extra work and got his grades up so he could participate in sports.
November is the anniversary of his father's death, a difficult time of year anyway. A few days later was the incident with the substitute teacher.
Peters said she appreciated that the sub was quickly removed, but was dismayed to learn more information from the Missoulian than from the school district.
She wants to see more anti-racism education at the school in an effort to combat what she, Gutierrez and their family see as an ongoing issue there.
"It's about communication and education," Peters said. "I'm worried that kids will see adults doing things like this and think it's OK. I don't want to see an entire generation regress back."