Questions surrounding the Alta High racial incidents

The State tests its students on English, science and mathematics each year. Social tact and cultural sensitivity are generally things teenagers pick up as they develop, but it’s not something they’re tested on. If there were such a test, however, one Alta High School student would fail horribly.

During a “Spirit Bowl” assembly at the school on March 17, an unnamed student wore a white pillowcase over his head with holes cut out of the eyes. The visual looked similar to the hood members of the Ku Klux Klan ceremonially wear over their heads. Why he thought doing it was a good idea is very unclear and, now, has set the community on edge.

Lars Cosby, a bi-racial student at Alta High School in Sandy, wasn’t pleased at his schoolmate’s actions, and he created a blog of his account. Apparently, Cosby saw the student wearing the pillowcase and pulled it off of his head. Cosby claims the hood, however, reappeared during the assembly and, additionally, the student had been “hailing Hitler” during the event.

“We all know that racism is a problem and I had heard a series of stories underlying race problems in Utah,” Cosby said in his post. “I am now convinced that this is true. Who in their right mind would plan to blatantly enforce their hate for others in a large gathering in a public school? How is it a joke? How is that funny?”

Many of the nearly 1300 comments on the blog indicate mixed feelings about the incident that range from agreement that the acts were unacceptable, or that Cosby was too easily offended by the incident. Other comments wafted strong and obvious racism.

Either way, the actions and the aftermath have revealed that many students and other people in the community surrounding Alta don’t understand the implications of the “Spirit Bowl” stunt.

As a result of the incident, the school has replaced the Principal Mont Widerberg with Ray Jensen while the investigation continues according to an open letter from Canyons School District. They said that the incident had led to more startling information involving racial relations in the school’s community.

Since the investingation started three students have been given citations involving a reportedly racist text message that had been sent between students as well.

The Alta High School community has been trying to use this incident as a learning experience for the larger community about social and cultural sensitivities among students.

The issue doesn’t just reflect the attitudes of students and faculty within Alta High School. This is something indicative of the larger community beyond the Canyons School District and into the rest of the state. The culture in Sandy probably isn’t a completely different one from that in Utah Valley.

Fortunately, the Canyons School District has been working with both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the United States Department of Justice to address the concerns that have risen since the incident occurred.

Rose Salamanca, a representative with the Department of Justice addressed concerns of racial conflict in the community at an April 6 presentation for the school board. Much of what Salamanca said stressed reaching out to the larger community to help inform board members and citizens of Sandy about how to solve such a complex problem.

“If there is racial tension, sometimes it is occurring in a way that not everyone is able to see,” Salamanca said. “The dialogue process is about bringing together the different sectors of the community to be able to have a conversation about race relations in their community; and it goes beyond race relations. It’s about community relations.”

What needs to happen now is to address the questions that arise as a result of this exposure. Sometimes the initial shock is enough to move the state into a mindset where more people are conscious of their actions that might incite or offend others around them.
Not everyone has the same experiences in a community as the person sitting next to them. Salamanca said. “By doing that, by getting that [knowledge] out on the table, people begin to figure out ‘is this where we want to be?’”

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