POLSON – Two juniors who wore clothing to Polson High School on Thursday that offended many people and ignited a social media backlash left school administrators scrambling Friday to dispel notions that the incident was far more widespread, and that they had done nothing about it.
One of the students wore a shirt to the school on the Flathead Indian Reservation that read “white power” on the front and “Trump 2016 white pride” on the back. The other had a shirt with a Confederate flag that said “Redneck.”
Polson Superintendent Rex Weltz said high school administrators called both students in as soon as they were made aware of the situation, and both “did change the offensive clothing.”
But that didn’t happen before other students took pictures of the students in the shirts and posted them on social media.
“Those pictures have circulated far past Polson,” Weltz said. “The Polson High School staff did not condone this conduct and addressed the incident with the students.”
In a prepared statement, he termed it an “inexcusable incident involving homecoming activities,” adding that the school district “will take appropriate action based on our policies and procedures, which may include discipline for the individual students.”
Meantime, Dustin Monroe, CEO and founder of Native Generational Change in Missoula, issued a call to Native Americans on the reservation to participate in a “peaceful response” to the “racist incident that happened at Polson High School” by gathering at Polson’s homecoming football game against Whitefish on Friday night.
Monroe suggested people bring signs reading “Stand Against Racism,” “Proud to be Native, “Unite against racism” and “Native Lives Matter,” among others.
“We’re not targeting these students” who wore the clothing, Monroe said. “My youth members brought this to my attention, and wanted to respond. We’re trying to deal with a systemic problem.”
The incident occurred during homecoming activities, which include themed dress-up days all week. Monday was “Rockers vs. Rappers,” Tuesday was “Super heroes vs. Villians” and Wednesday was “Dress for Success.”
Thursday’s was called “Color Wars,” a long-standing name for the day that Weltz acknowledged wasn’t helping matters.
The PHS Student Board of Governors assigns a color to each class for “Color Wars,” and classes compete to see how many students dress in their assigned colors that day. This year, the assigned colors were black for seniors, white for juniors, blue for sophomores and green for freshmen.
Each class has a group photograph taken in the bleachers of the high school gym. The number of students wearing their assigned color is counted, and the class with the highest participation wins.
Photos of the junior class group, along with other pictures showing the two students alone or together, quickly made their way onto social media. Some had faces blurred or scratched out, but others didn’t.
Some of the pictures of the junior class in the gym are cropped, but still show more than 50 students dressed in white shirts. Accompanying comments often suggested that several, many or most of the students were wearing “white power” shirts when only one of them was.
One person who posted photographs said it looked like “white supremacy day” at the school. Another claimed the school “allowed these students to wear shirts that read ‘white pride,’ ‘white power’ with Confederate flags and Trump support. No one was sent home. They even took a junior class photo. Not racist? Just school pride?”
“With social media, that’s the hard part,” Weltz said. “It only paints one side of the picture.”
Weltz told the Missoulian he didn’t know how long the two students wore the clothing before high school administrators intervened, but said as soon as administrators were “made aware of the offensive and inappropriate clothing, they immediately took steps to remedy the situation.”
At this time of year, he added, students often arrive at school in coats or sweatshirts they might keep on for part of the day, and that would hide offending clothing.
The school’s policy for a first offense of a dress code violation, Weltz said, is to require a student to “mitigate” the offense by either changing out of the clothing, covering it up or turning it inside-out. Refusal to do so, or a second offense, would ratchet up the offense to insubordination, he said.
Both students changed out of the clothing when asked to, he said. The school district is not presently aware of any other students who wore inappropriate clothing on Thursday, he added.
“We know of two at this point who made a poor choice,” Weltz said.
“It’s a tough time, but it’s also a great opportunity for us to get better, to learn from this,” he went on. “We’ll be able to have a great discussion with our students about what’s offensive to people, and what’s not, to discuss how words can be offensive. It’s an opportunity for us to get stronger as a school.”
Weltz said he doesn’t know when “Color Wars” became a part of homecoming week, but said it’s been around for at least 10 years, and classes competing to see which will have the highest participation in wearing their assigned color has been the most popular day of the week. He said the name may be changed to something such as "Color Competition" in the future.
Friday also had a theme – Purple and Gold day, the school colors.
“We applaud the students who stood up against this conflict,” Weltz said in his prepared statement, “and will continue to educate all of our students about our policies and practices forbidding discrimination in any form.”