SANDY — An Alta High School's student's racially-tinged actions at a recent school assembly were inappropriate, even if they were done in jest, experts and observers say.

Still, they hope the student's donning of a pillowcase over his head that resembled a Ku Klux Klan-style hood – which has led to his suspension and two administrators being placed on leave pending an investigation of other incidents at the school — can be used as a "teaching moment."

And Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake branch, called the incident an "act of terror." She said the school district needs to provide sensitivity training so students, teachers, administrators and parents understand the impact of references to the KKK.

"A person would know what they are doing when they do something like that. As people know, it is an act of terror. They do it to intimidate folks," Williams said. "This was done that way. It wasn't done as a joke regardless of what other people might say."

Williams said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People became aware of the incident shortly after it occurred and was "very surprised and appalled." She said the organization is satisfied with the school district's efforts, which have uncovered other incidents she declined to detail.

Richard Gomez, educational equity coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education, said federal data show incidents of racial harassment and intimidation are on the upswing nationwide, though many remain "under the surface." 

"The situation that happened at Alta High School is just the tip of the iceberg," Gomez said.

Minorities now make up about 20 percent of Utah's population, and about 30 percent in Salt Lake County. The number of minority youth are even higher, the leading edge of a wave of diversity that is beginning to sweep the state.

But that wave has not reached Sandy, which is more than 90 percent white, as is Alta High. 

Pam Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah who specializes in demographic research, said it can be hard for young people to understand complex cultural and racial problems because they have yet to develop a worldview.

"Those kids are not playing with a full deck," she said. "It's adults who have that context to turn it into a teaching moment."

And it's only natural, Perlich said, for many in the Alta High community to recoil from the perception that their school is racially exclusive.

"People don't want to be accused of being racist," she said. "It's one of those things people just don't want to talk about."

Theresa Martinez, a sociologist at the U. who has been a target of racism herself for her stance on immigration issues, said she could see no humor in the act.

For largely affluent students to make a joke out of a Klan symbol "just gives you a sense of how they have no clue," she said. "They're completely in denial. They can't even see their own privilege."

"Just because we don't mean any harm doesn't mean we don't play into the hands of racist imagery and racism," Martinez said. "In a state that's predominantly white it's sometimes really easy for people to say it's no big deal."

"The more diverse we become the more threatened people feel, the more afraid they become," she added.

But difference doesn't have to be a divider, Perlich said, arguing that if everyone can take the best of their relationships with each other, "It makes us a better community."

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said the community can learn from the incident.

"Something occurred we wish had not occurred, whether it be by joke or by intention," Romero said. "But we shouldn’t lose the opportunity to have the conversation about being vigilant about protecting the good will of people."

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said while the student could have chosen his attire more carefully, he doesn't want to see schools veer too far into political correctness, "creating a bunch of people who are afraid of doing anything."

Oda said older generations might react more strongly to the incident and suggested a history lesson might be in order for the students, as well a reminder  "they do have to be somewhat careful. Not everything is going to be perceived as just fun."

Contributing: Richard Piatt

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