'White pride' shirts prompt Polson protest

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Polson Police and Flathead Tribal Police respond to Polson High School on Friday morning.

Polson School District has condemned the actions of some high school students who included racially charged messages on outfits worn as part of a school spirit day Thursday.

Photos of the outfits were widely shared on social media and have spurred a protest that was expected to take place at Polson High School’s football stadium Friday during homecoming festivities.

According to a press release from the district, each class was assigned a color for the day. The seniors were instructed to wear black, the juniors to wear white, the sophomores to wear blue and the freshmen to wear green.

Photos circulating across social media showed that at least two students included racial references on their garb. One student was pictured wearing a white T-shirt boasting the words “white pride” and “Trump 2016.” The student had braided her hair, which some in the native community have interpreted to be insensitive “cultural appropriation” of Native American heritage. Another student was wearing a white shirt with a Confederate flag with the word “redneck.” Another student wore a shirt with the phrase “white power” written on the back.

“Yesterday, a few students used this Homecoming practice to wear offensive and inappropriate clothing to school,” Superintendent Rex Weltz said in a press release. “When staff members were made aware of the offensive and inappropriate clothing, they immediately took steps to remedy the situation. Before the staff members were made aware of the offensive and inappropriate clothing and could take action, however, students chose on their own to post pictures to their personal social media and those pictures have circulated far past Polson. The Polson High School staff did not condone this conduct and addressed the incident with the students.”

The response has not succeeded in easing outrage, however. Caitlin Borgmann, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said the school district is pushing the blame on the students, rather than acknowledging its own responsibility for the situation.

“Specifically, to choose the colors white and black seems like there was not much thought about what could happen,” she said. “It shows that the school has not adequately educated its students.”

Meg Singer, the indigenous justice outreach coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said that she has fielded multiple calls from parents of Native American students.

“They are mostly disappointed that the school did not take measures to stop this,” Singer said. “They should have a demonstration. That’s their right and a way to let the school know this is important.”

Singer said the civil liberties union will draft a strategic plan over the weekend detailing ways the community can move past the incident, and the organization plans to have a presence in Polson next week.

Polson High School Principal Scott Wilson declined to comment for this story and directed all questions to the Polson School District. The district declined to comment beyond the press release.

Weltz said in the release that “Polson School District does not and will not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form toward any person. As a District, we are disappointed in the actions of those few students and will take appropriate action based on our policies and procedures, which may include discipline for the individual students.”

Weltz said the district does “applaud the students who stood up against this conduct and will continue to educate all of our students about our policies and practices forbidding discrimination in any form.”

Dustin Monroe is chief executive officer of Native Generation Change, a Missoula-based group that works on Indian reservations across Montana to tackle issues that challenge the native community. Members of the youth-led organization contacted Monroe Thursday night, upset about the incident that had occurred at the school.

“For me what was disturbing was the braids and the white power,” Monroe said.

Monroe said that seven or eight of the group’s members who attend the high school wanted to respond in a way that did not incite more hate, but instead took an educational approach to start a productive discussion.

“They want to be able to get their message out that this is not acceptable in their school and they want to have a voice against it,” Monroe said.

The students started circulating a message on Facebook, asking people to partake in a peaceful protest Friday at the Polson football stadium. People were urged to bring drums and signs with anti-racist messages.

“It’s spreading like wildfire,” Monroe said.

Both native and non-native students were planning on attending.

“They don’t want to be labeled as going to a racist high school,” Monroe said.

In addition, Monroe said he was at the University of Montana campus on Friday and had spoken to both native and non-native people who intended to drive from Missoula to Polson for the protest.

“That’s where change starts,” Monroe said. “It’s not just a native problem or a non-native problem.”

Monroe said the rally was not meant to cast blame on the students who took part in the incident, but instead was to call attention to the issue of racism.

“It’s a peaceful rally,” Monroe said. “We’re not coming out and pointing fingers at people. We are coming out against the systemic problem of racism.”

Reporter Megan Strickland can be reached at 758-4459 or mstrickland@dailyinterlake.com 

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