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Canyons settles case of racial threats, abuse against former Alta High student

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 7:42 a.m. MDT

The Canyons School District, shown here celebrating a historic milestone in the construction of the new Corner Canyon High School in December, has paid $100,000 to settle a claim with a former Alta High School student who said others at the school racially abused him throughout his time there. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) The Canyons School District, shown here celebrating a historic milestone in the construction of the new Corner Canyon High School in December, has paid $100,000 to settle a claim with a former Alta High School student who said others at the school racially abused him throughout his time there. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SANDY — The Canyons School District has paid $100,000 to settle a claim with a former Alta High School student who said others at the school racially abused him throughout his time there.

In documents released by the district Friday through a public records request, the biracial student refers to a student-run white supremacist group that targeted him and claims one student made a noose out of athletic tape and threatened to "rope" him.

Anthony Armstrong, a student at Alta from 2009 to 2011, endured "daily racial abuse," causing him emotional suffering, diminished self-confidence, alienation and decreased academic performance, according to the civil complaint that was never filed in court but was presented to the district by Armstrong's attorneys in November 2011.

The continuous use of racial slurs by peers and fellow football teammates led Armstrong to suffer "severe emotional trauma" and he "often cried himself to sleep."

David S. Doty, Canyons School District Superintendent, discusses the districts' investigation into racism complaints at Alta High School on Friday, April 8, 2011. Almost two years later, a former Alta High student was awarded $100,000 to settle the claim. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) David S. Doty, Canyons School District Superintendent, discusses the districts' investigation into racism complaints at Alta High School on Friday, April 8, 2011. Almost two years later, a former Alta High student was awarded $100,000 to settle the claim. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"The Canyons acted swiftly and appropriately as soon as they were made aware of these allegations," said district spokesman Jeff Haney. He said the district followed up the complaints with an intensive review of all anti-discrimination policies and an investigation into the allegations.

"It remains our highest priority to have an environment that is safe and welcoming to all students," Haney said, adding that "there's been no admission of liability by Canyons."

The documents detail behavior that was allegedly witnessed by various administrators at the school, involving at least five other students at Alta, including one who was beaten and taken to the emergency room following a seizure. Armstrong and his mother alerted school officials, who "saw no reason to discuss the matter further," according to the complaint.

Despite the events, including death and lynching threats, beginning before the start of Armstrong's sophomore year at the school, district administrators didn't get involved until March 2011. At the time, a student had blogged about an incident at a school spirit assembly where another Alta student wore a white pointed hood that resembled a Ku Klux Klan hood, while chanting racial epithets and "Heil, Hitler," the documents state.

Students at the assembly were dressed in school colors, including red, white and black, and some believed the incident was blown out of proportion at the time.

Two weeks later, however, District Superintendent David Doty and Board President Tracy Cowdell said in a letter that was sent to parents and students at Alta, that further examination of the event "uncovered evidence of other very serious incidents that warrant immediate and thorough attention, including appropriate administrative action."

Days after that, then Alta Principal Mont Widerburg resigned and Assistant Principal Mark Montague was transferred to another school. He later resigned from that position and received a severance of $55,000. The two had allegedly declined to intervene in the ongoing situation, despite attention brought to the issues by Armstrong.

Montague, however, filed a grievance with the district about his treatment and received an undisclosed settlement that he said included "no finding of racism or condoning of racism on my part."

At the time, three students at Alta High were cited for unlawful misdemeanor acts in school. Two were cited for allegedly sending text pictures of burning crosses on their phones.

Armstrong's complaint also mentions a student-run white supremacist group called the Rawhide Gang that allegedly targeted him and other racially diverse students at the school. Knowledge of the gang and its actions, the documents state, was widespread.

One teammate allegedly dangled a noose fashioned out of athletic tape in front of Armstrong's face, saying, "I'm going to rope you boy." Another pointed out to Armstrong that "30 years ago, you would be hanging from one of these trees."

Armstrong's complaint details repeated attempts to bring attention to the matter, including discussions with the then-Alta football coach, Les Hamilton, who allegedly belittled Armstrong, telling him, "forget the past" and "to suck it up and be a man."

Though Hamilton has publicly denied the claims, Armstrong believes the incidents led to him being demoted from starting on the varsity team to sitting on the bench on the junior varsity team, and never getting time to play, despite his abilities, the complaint states.

The settlement, drawn up by the district's insurer, the Utah Division of Risk Management, was paid to Armstrong and his parents in December. The three also agreed to "acquit and forever discharge" the district and members of its administration from any wrongdoing.

The district, however, must implement a revised non-discrimination policy, created with input from Armstrong and his parents, and keep the family apprised of its efforts to do so. The administration has appointed a chief civil rights officer and included students in training facilitated by experts with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program.

Haney said educators and support personnel are trained on the policies each year.

Posters containing information on how to report discrimination have also been printed and distributed and are to be on display in each building throughout the district, and students must agree to abide by the district's anti-discrimination policy upon registration.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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