Sunday, January 26, 2020

Not in our schools, not in our county, not anywhere

Yes, it can happen anywhere. And it happened right here, at a school in Stillwater County.
No doubt most of us are familiar with the 1993 Billings incident – a rock thrown through the window of a Jewish family – that spawned the nationally-recognized Not in Our Town response and movement. (The Billings Gazette printed Menorahs for everyone to display as a way to support the Jewish family and to stand up against discrimination).
A different but similar incident took place at a school in Stillwater County – a school I refrain from naming because, the fact is, it could have happened anywhere.
To put this in context, the incident took place in early November, a day or two after the election. That’s when nine elementary school boys (mostly fifth and sixth graders) targeted an 11-year-old girl – a native Montanan, an American, of Hispanic descent. As the girl arrived at school that morning, the boys gathered around and several began taunting her with rhetoric that echoed the nasty remarks we’d been hearing too often. “Build a wall! Build a wall!” they chanted, then slammed the gate, preventing her from entering the playground and hence from entering her school. Needless to say, the girl was distraught. The school’s response is not clear (details were discussed during a closed session of the school board’s December meeting), but some of the boys were given noon detention that day.
Obviously the boys modeled their behavior after what they’d seen on TV or heard in the home. Rather than wish the ugly incident “under the rug” or trivialize it as just “kids being kids,” we can take this opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The boys’ behavior was not okay. It was intimidation based on name or skin color – and that’s discrimination.
With our country wounded and divided by “otherness”, we need to BREAK walls, not build them. We can only heal if we make a concerted effort to listen, really listen, to one another. And to take that one step further and respect one another. We can also remind ourselves that our hopes and values are more alike than they are different.
In honor of and support for this young girl, we make our position absolutely clear. There is no place for discrimination in this country of ours.
Not in our schools. Not in our County. Not anywhere.

Linda Halstead-Acharya, Columbus
Bharat Acharya, Columbus
Laura Kane, Columbus
Arleen Boyd, Fishtail
Kathleen Ralph, Columbus
Dave Grimland, Columbus
Mary Kuehn, Columbus
Doreen Spano, Columbus
Gale Madler, Columbus
Gordon Williams, Columbus
Andrea Heyneman, Absarokee
Rev. Tracy Heilman, Billings

EDITOR’S NOTE: Administrators at the school at which the above incident occurred took immediate action in the matter. According to the superintendent, a teacher intervened and reported it to the principal. All nine boys involved, and their parents, were spoken to and disciplined following the school’s MBI (Montana Behavioral Initiative) discipline grid. Additional education was conducted through an assembly on immigration which tied into Thanksgiving and the fact that many of local families are immigrants. A non-family member of the victim brought the matter to the school board at a special hearing conducted this past Monday. That portion of the meeting lasted one hour and was held in executive session because one of the boys involved is the son of a school board member. According to the superintended, that non-family member wants the school to make changes in its discipline policy, namely to force children to apologize in such situations. Only three of the nine boys involved offered apologies to the girl. The school has formed a committee to consider the change.