Weber County parents, school reps wrestle with racism in wake of viral video

Monday , December 11, 2017 - 5:00 AM10 comments

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

Nearly two months after a controversial video circulated on social media showing five Weber High School students using a racial slur, efforts aimed at heightening racial awareness seem to be percolating in the community.

Weber School District Superintendent Jeff Stephens wrote a statement last week on the district website calling on teachers to promote tolerance in the classroom and put an end to “bias speech.”

“Recently, we have been experiencing an escalation of intolerant behavior in our schools,” Stephens wrote in the statement, titled “Not in Our District.” “Instances of fighting, taunting, cyberbullying and harassment are on the rise. One could easily conclude that the current national discourse in areas such as politics, religious tolerance, race relations, free speech, etc., is filtering into our schools and having a substantial impact.”

Meanwhile, a pair of volunteers from Coming to the Table (CTTT), a nonprofit group affiliated with Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, visited Weber County this week, invited by parents of Weber High School students and others. They led a pair of discussions on “dismantling racism,” one in Eden, the other at Weber High School in Pleasant View.

“I think it’s brave,” Rusty Vaughan, a CTTT volunteer from Annapolis, Maryland, told the 30 or so participants in the Eden discussion, held last Wednesday. He hoped the CTTT volunteers would leave “a footprint that keeps on walking.”

The short video of the five Weber High School girls sparked controversy and condemnation when it came to public light on Oct. 17, getting nationwide circulation via tweets and other social media. In it, the girls seem to be saying a racial slur, apparently speaking a “nonsensical phrase” played backward using an app, according to the school district.

RELATED: Weber schools ends investigation into racist video, students disciplined

District spokesman Lane Findlay has not been in contact with families of the students and couldn’t speak to any actions they’ve taken in the aftermath of the controversy. The girls — juniors and seniors — maintain they “were just playing around” when making the video about a year ago and expressed “sincere regret” during a school investigation into the matter, according to a district press release on Oct. 23.

Family members didn’t immediately respond to queries from the Standard-Examiner seeking comment and Jodie Geddes, the CTTT president, said the CTTT reps’ aim in coming here wasn’t to discuss and parse the video.

“What I see here is an opportunity for the community to ask, ‘What now?’” Vaughan said in an interview. “If something happened, then let’s move beyond that something (to) what I am going to do about that.”

‘PEEL BACK THE LAYERS’

Lex Scott, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, said one of her big concerns was making sure students of color at Weber High School were safe and wouldn’t somehow be subject to backlash. She met with Stephens after the video came to light and he assured the school would respond — requiring reading in English classes of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel that deals with racial issues, among other things.

“This superintendent really sounded like he cared and he had a lot of things planned for the school,” Scott said.

RELATED: Black Lives Matter movement aims to organize nonviolent actions in Ogden

Whatever the case, the incident, for some, still seems to ripple, even though the girls involved maintain they weren’t targeting anybody. Weber High School is an affluent, predominantly white school that served 1,877 students in 2016-17, including eight African-Americans and 219 other racial or ethnic minority students, according to Utah State Board of Education data.

Findlay said a special committee is investigating implementation of sensitivity and anti-discrimination training in the district for students and staff.

“Let’s work together to ensure that every student feels safe from bullying and harassment,” Stephens, the superintendent, wrote in his statement, which Findlay maintains wasn’t motivated by any single thing in particular. “Let’s redouble our efforts to make sure that every student feels valued. And, let’s fight to ensure that tolerance, inclusion and acceptance become hallmarks of our schools.”

Scott pointed to what she thinks is a need for more diverse staffing in Utah schools, partly to aid in providing instruction about racism. “We have a really white school system here,” she said.

Vaughan and Geddes spoke of unconscious biases they say everyone has, indicators of prejudice that manifest themselves in small ways — a clutched purse as somebody passes, body language, a look. “There’s a tendency in the white community to think racist and unconscious bias does not exist,” Vaughan said.

The “microaggressions” that come from unconscious bias, Geddes said, may not be intentional, but they can still hurt. The aim of CTTT is to “peel back the layers so people can begin to see it,” to promote open, honest conversation on issues of race.

“I think all of us have some sort of prejudice or bias,” Geddes said. “I think the big thing is when we investigate the bias, we begin to learn more about it.”

RELATED: ACLU: Northern Utah minorities more likely to end up in juvenile system

School reps haven’t specified what repercussions the five students faced after the video surfaced, citing federal student privacy laws. But the Oct. 23 press release stated three of the five were on the school’s cheerleading squad, and it noted that certain provisions of school policy “apply to specific misconduct both on and off campus.”

Scott had called on Black Lives Matter backers to tell her if they saw any of the girls attending Weber High School sporting events as cheerleaders. She hasn’t gotten any feedback to indicate they are.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/TimVandenackReporter.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×