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Amid rumors, students hope normalcy returns to Alta High School

Published: Wednesday, March 30 2011 6:33 p.m. MDT

Students return from lunch to Alta High School in Sandy, Utah, Wednesday, March 30, 2011.

Ravell Call, Ravell Call, Deseret News

SANDY — With little information to go on, parents and students in the Alta High community wonder what "serious incidents" could have prompted the district to investigate the school and its administration.

An alleged off-campus fight; possible racial slurs uttered by student crowds at basketball games; and most recently, a purported circulating picture text of a burning cross are among the things some students think have contributed to the investigation.

Principal Mont Widerberg and Vice Principal Mark Montague were placed on paid leave Monday, said Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook. Ray Jenson, a former Alta teacher and administrator at Bingham High, is filling in during the interim.

But while students voice their hypotheses in the halls and class, teachers are following district policy by not talking about it.

"We have no idea what these incidents are," said Tony Romanello, a teacher at Alta and president of the Canyons teachers association. "The students seemed to know more than we did. … There's nothing keeping the students from talking to each other."

The district launched its investigation after a March 17, Spirit Bowl where a junior allegedly put a white pillowcase, which some say was reminiscent of a KKK-hood, on his head.

Some parents, who have asked not to be named, wonder if an alleged fight between a white and black student at the end of last school year could be a factor in the investigation.

The district said it "uncovered evidence of other very serious incidents that warrant immediate and thorough attention," while looking into claims of racism stemming from the March 17 spirit bowl.

But until the district completes its inquiry, it doesn't appear it will disclosing what those other instances were. District officials haven't decided what, if any, of their findings will be made public.

Romanello said he likes it that way.

"I would be very upset if they did release any of the allegations unless they are done with their investigation," he said.

It's standard procedure for the district to investigate all allegations, he said, and in light of the spirit bowl exchange, it seems like many more people have come forward.

"You have to investigate it," Romanello said. "It doesn't say that they're innocent (the administration), it doesn't say that they're guilty. ... It's just the way that it operates.

Students are hopeful normalcy will return to the school, and soon.

"That's the talk of the school. Nobody likes to come to school anymore because that's all anybody talks about," said Ashley Anderson, a junior. "We just want to learn and have friends."

Zack Larsen, a junior, worries about the repercussions.

"People are going to start thinking, well, the school is racist. Maybe I'm racist because I go to that school. I'm not saying it will happen, but I'm saying it could have an effect."

Meanwhile, the district is making efforts to talk to students about discrimination by meeting with every language arts class in the district to discuss student roles in creating a safe school environment as well as informing them of their duty to alert administrators of civil right violations.

Superintendent David Doty personally went from class to class Tuesday and Wednesday talking to students about discrimination and students rights.

District spokesman Jeff Haney said Doty wanted to talk "face-to-face" with students because of the importance of the issue.

Contributing: Rich Piatt

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

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