Doug Robinson: Can common sense win in Alta 'racism' case?

Published: Monday, June 13 2011 10:05 p.m. MDT

SANDY —

I don't know what's going to happen to that Alta High kid who wore the "KKK hood" at a school assembly last March, but I hope common sense makes a comeback and prevails. Apparently, a two-week school suspension, physical threats, weeks of anxiety, legal fees and fear of reprisals on the football field aren't enough; now the kid must go to court on Thursday to face legal charges.

This just feels like the adults are piling on, and they should know better.

Maybe they should order the kid to take "sensitivity training" or meet with black students to listen to what life is like for them at school. Or maybe they should assign him to write a 2,000-word report on the history of the KKK and the Deep South. Writing a report — now that's real punishment for a teen.

But legal action against him? That's just wrong.

Because when you cut through all the hysteria, this wasn't a racist kid trying to make a racist statement; the only thing he's really guilty of is being stupid and being a teenager, which is pretty much the same thing.

It all began, you might remember, when Alta held its annual Spirit Bowl in the school gym. It's a contest to see which class has the most school spirit. The sophomores wear red, the juniors white, the seniors black — the school colors. Then they have a big cheer off, and the crazier a kid acts, the better.

During the craziness and excitement, the kid — let's call him Mike — put what some called a "KKK" hood over his head for a few seconds. The "KKK hood" didn't even belong to Mike. For that matter, it only vaguely resembled a KKK hood. It was an old dingy white pillowcase that belonged to one of Mike's classmates, and it had holes cut for eyes, but no pointed top. Other students had taken turns wearing it briefly (some witnesses said some seniors wore black pillow cases over their heads). When Mike's junior class was declared victorious, Mike celebrated by putting the hood on again and running onto the gym floor. He would later tell others he was just trying to be funny; the deeper, symbolic implications never occurred to him.

"He wore it about 10 seconds, tops," says one student who is Mike's friend. "I was sitting behind him. I told him not to do it. He was just being stupid, but he wasn't doing it to be racist. No way is he racist. No way. It was just (Mike) being (Mike)."

A disclaimer: I have coached at Alta High since 1996, and I know the kid. Like many others his age, he's rambunctious — you would call him a ham — but he's a nice kid and a 4.0 student and some of his best friends and teammates are black.

What Mike did at the assembly was a spontaneous act. As one of Mike's black friends so aptly put it, "It wasn't meant to be racist — he's a great kid — it's just naivete. Kids at Alta are not exposed to diversity. There are 2,000 kids and fewer than 50 minorities. I'll put it this way: With knowledge comes accountability. When kids know what they're doing, there should be swift consequences. But they (Alta students) don't know. He didn't know how wrong it was."

Most Utah kids don't really know or understand the black experience of American history. They don't know the seriousness and ugliness of the KKK and what blacks endured. "Other than two pages in a history book, you don't learn about it," says Mike's friend.

According to one black student, a few months before the incident black students and their parents asked school officials to conduct sensitivity training sessions for Alta students in the wake of some racial incidents. "If they had done it, maybe this wouldn't have happened," he says.

But it happened and it became A Big Deal. A student blogger cried racism and then the news media swooped in for the kill. Alta students replied to the blog and a war of words began. "Most people support (Mike) because they feel he's getting a raw deal," a student said at the time.

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