Frenchtown High School students and staff will receive prejudice reduction and violence prevention training in December as part of the district’s response to recent social media posts that were racially derogatory and threatening.
“We’re really excited to be able to work with educators at the middle school and high school, and work with all the students at the high school, as an opportunity to strengthen connections, gain some knowledge and skills, and hopefully move forward,” Empower Montana Executive Director Heidi Wallace said. The nonprofit provides educational programming on diversity, inclusion and intervention options when people see hateful incidents occur.
In mid-October, a teen girl made social media posts featuring a teen boy, including one where he held a hunting rifle and she, or another student, wrote “bout to go shoot some (racial epithet).” In response to people offended by the first post, another included a photo of two rifles on the seat of a vehicle and said “get over it especially if ur cali people... like I live in montana.”
Shortly after learning about the incident, Superintendent Randy Cline said the district does not condone such behavior and that the school would follow procedure in addressing it. Two unidentified students were suspended and the report was forwarded to the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, which had its school resource officer, a former detective, review the case.
MCSO Spokeswoman Brenda Bassett said Thursday that the case was ultimately “turned over to Missoula Youth Court,” which handles criminal and non-criminal charges filed against juveniles as well as their probation.
Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jennifer Clark said she is still reviewing the information shared with them by the sheriff’s office. She confirmed that any case against the girl, who is a minor, would be handled in Youth Court. The office hasn’t yet decided whether to charge the other student, a boy who is 18.
Cline and Principal Jake Haynes said in an email Friday that "the district's investigation of this incident is complete,'' but cited student confidentiality when asked whether the teens remained suspended or if any additional actions were taken.
Last week, Cline had said he has “never seen anything like this before.”
A current student told the Missoulian such comments are more frequent than school leaders have admitted and hopes talking about them publicly will trigger more immediate and direct action. She is not being identified because she is a minor and asked not to be named. Her allegations could not be independently verified.
“This is very common. There’s a whole group called Hick Nation constituted of people who do that on the regular,” she said. Just a few days before the inflammatory social media posts, a teacher told her that some of those students “went through a McDonald’s drive through chanting the n-word” during the school’s lunch break.
Another time, she said, “one student walking down the hallway yelled at another student who was dating a person of color, and called him the n-word lover. Two teachers were standing 15 feet away. They looked at them and turned away.”
She was unsure if the incidents she described were reported up the chain and if the discipline was instead handled later, although she said friends have reported similar comments to teachers and “nothing ever happens.” She said she has only ever seen one teacher intervene when he hears inappropriate racial comments.
Cline said in an email Friday that the principal and assistant principals had talked with concerned parents and students after the suspensions, but none of those conversations included any new allegations.
"Parent and student response to these discussions have been positive,'' Cline said. "There has been no discussion or mention by any student or parent related to what you describe. The district will investigate any incidents, such as those described above, and follow the law, its policies and its procedures when determining appropriate actions.''
Cline said the school handbook says students "shall not racially harass or intimidate others by name calling, using racial or derogatory slurs, wearing or possessing items depicting or implying racial hatred or prejudice.'' Students who are harassed should report the problem and staff members are directed to refer all complaints to a building administrator.
"The district will not tolerate any retaliation against individuals who file complains, participate in the complaint procedure or are the subject of a complaint,'' he said.
Wallace from Empower Montana said that if students do not see teachers or other adults responding — even if they later are in private — teens “could feel a little hopeless” and might be discouraged from reporting what they see or hear.
“There can be a culture of fear in being targeted worse if you are speaking up,” she said. “The most important thing we can do is inspire and empower as many allies as we can within the school, adults and youth, who have the same information and the same skills for being able to interrupt things as they see it with the intention that those behaviors will be minimized.”
When the group visits the school later this year, Wallace said presentations will be paired with hands-on activities where students and staff will be given scenarios to practice new skills for how to safely intervene. Each session will be led by two trainers, one adult and one teen.
The group has led similar workshops at dozens of schools across the state, Wallace said, including Whitefish, Polson and Ronan as well as Big Sky High School and C.S. Porter Middle School in Missoula. Some are in response to crises such as the recent social media posts in Frenchtown but many are at the request of schools that want to be proactive about creating a “safe and welcoming” culture.
“I would encourage listening, creating opportunities to listen to the youth and their experiences,” Wallace said. “What issues are they concerned about and what ideas do they have?”