Justice Department to help Canyons District with race discussion at Tuesday meeting

Published: Tuesday, April 5 2011 10:09 p.m. MDT

Heather and Eddie Gist told the Canyons School Board on Tuesday that the district needs to put a stop to racist behavior in schools.

Mike Terry, Mike Terry, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — The Canyons School District will look to the Department of Justice for help in resolving racial conflict, particularly at Alta High School.

The board of education authorized Superintendent David Doty on Tuesday to move forward in discussions with the community outreach services department of the DOJ in hopes of addressing recent strife.

A few weeks ago, an Alta student allegedly donned a pillowcase resembling a KKK hood at a spirit rally, prompting an ongoing investigation that uncovered other "serious incidents" that have taken place at the school. The DOJ reached out to Canyons shortly after reports about the spirit assembly surfaced, and offered its services according to the district.

"I think having this conciliation service, this conflict resolutions service ... could be very, very helpful for us," Doty told the board.

Rosa Salamanca, a conciliation specialist from the regional DOJ office representing Utah, told the board a variety of ways her office can assist the district, all of which centered on open discussions with the community.

Board member Mont Millerberg said he was concerned the people who need to hear those conversations the most won't be included.

"A lot of the problems we have come out of families, come out of homes," he said. "How do we reach into the home and do some teaching?"

Salamanca recommended conducting a "methodical" search in order to include people from all backgrounds.

"I can tell you that our community dialogues are a good vehicle," Salamanca said. "The dialogue process for us is about bringing together the different sectors of the community. ... It goes beyond race relations, it's about community relations."

Doty said he will look to a variety of different organizations for help in providing ongoing sensitivity training and education for students, educators and community members in the district. In the short term, however, he's hopeful Salamanca and her team will be able help. What that help looks like will likely be decided in discussions between the district and DOJ representatives Wednesday.

Salamanca said she's been impressed so far with the way the district has handled addressing concerns in the aftermath of the investigation.

"I understand that there has been quite a bit of information that has gone out. That is probably the No. 1 step that needs to happen," she said. "I applaud you for all of your good efforts so far. It's rare I see that."

The Alta High investigation the district is conducting is ongoing, and it's unclear what — if any — information will be released once it's completed.

One incident the district did say it is investigating is a racially charged picture message that made the rounds between students after the spirit assembly. A copy obtained by KSL depicts a burning cross with a person in hooded KKK garb raising their arm into the air.

"It goes beyond the spirit assembly and the text messages that the public is aware of," district spokesman Jeff Haney said.

The principal of Alta High, Mont Widerberg, announced his early retirement last week in the wake of the district's investigation. He and the school's assistant principal, Mark Montague, were placed on paid leave after the assembly incident.

Parents from the district who attended Tuesday's board meeting said they're hopeful changes can occur, and consciousness can be raised with the DOJ's help.

"I"m really glad that it's opening doors," said Heather Gist, whose biracial children attend schools in the district. She said it has already created dialogue within her own home, where she has only recently learned racial slurs have been waged against her kids in school.

Her husband, Eddie, said he's from North Carolina, where he experienced first-hand the KKK's vitriol. He said if school administrators don't put a stop to racist behavior as soon as they see it, they might as well endorse it. Education is also an important component, he said.

"If they don't stop it, they're condoning it," he said. "There's got to be a way to talk to kids about the civil rights movement."

Email: mfarmer@desnews.com

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