National News

School District Apologizes for Costumes of Mexican Stereotypes and Border Wall Prop

Posted November 3, 2018 1:42 p.m. EDT

The superintendent of an Idaho school district apologized Friday after photos circulated showing some staff members at an elementary school wearing Halloween costumes depicting Mexican stereotypes and others posing behind a border wall adorned with President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”

The two photos were among several costume pictures posted to the school district’s Facebook page before being taken down. One showed a group wearing sombreros, ponchos and dark mustaches; the other included staff members dressed in U.S. patriotic gear standing behind what appeared to be a cardboard border wall.

The photos of staff members from Middleton Heights Elementary School in Middleton, Idaho, were quickly met with outrage from the local Hispanic community and beyond. The pictures exacerbated a racial divide in a state that is predominantly white but where Hispanic people are the largest minority group. The episode also came at a time when the president has stoked anti-immigrant animus just before the midterm elections.

In a Facebook video posted Friday, Middleton School District Superintendent Josh J. Middleton said the district was investigating what had happened.

“Do I think there was a malicious intent in this poor decision? No, I don’t,” he said. “Was there a poor judgment involved? Absolutely.” He added that he was “deeply troubled by the decision by our staff members to wear those costumes that are clearly insensitive and inappropriate.”

“We are better than this,” he said. “We embrace all students. We have a responsibility to teach and reach all students — period.”

A letter addressed to the superintendent from 12 community groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Planned Parenthood and Immigrant Justice Idaho — said “the school and community climate in Idaho continues to grow more harmful against specific groups and identities, including our Latinx friends, family and neighbors.”

“The intent or misjudgements of the individuals involved does not undo the trauma experienced by students, families and communities,” the letter said.

Middleton, Idaho, is a city of 7,400 about 20 miles northwest of Boise. During the 2015-16 school year, about 12 percent of students at Middleton Heights Elementary School were Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

It was unclear why the employees dressed up the way they did. Two parents who visited the elementary school on Halloween, and who spoke only on the condition that their names not be used for safety reasons, said the faculty was having a costume competition where groups of teachers dressed up to represent various countries.

State education officials said complaints — and any possible disciplinary or corrective action — would be handled by the local school board. Middleton and other school district officials, including board members, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

J.J. Saldaña, who oversees education efforts for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, a state agency that serves the Hispanic community, said Friday that he had been inundated with calls from upset parents and community members.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook all day,” said Saldaña, who said he was collecting letters from community members.

The photos were particularly concerning, he said, because anti-immigration messages have been used to bully Hispanic children in school settings. For example, he said, during basketball games involving schools with large Hispanic populations, crowds had at times referred to the border wall to taunt players.

“We’ve already been hearing since the last presidential election that Hispanic kids have been taunted with that: ‘We’re going to build a wall’ or ‘Your parents are going to be deported,'” Saldaña said. “They are still getting taunted and teased and bullied with that, so being an educator, an adult doing this, it’s heartbreaking.”

Jon Yorgason, who has children who attend Middleton Heights Elementary School, said the Halloween event was supposed to be fun, though part of it was mishandled.

“This was just a Halloween dress-up day,” he said. “Adults have blown this out of proportion. This was really something fun for the kids — that was the intent.”

But he said there was a difference between dressing up as another culture and depicting a border wall, which is one of the country’s most sensitive and contentious political issues.

“The wall — considering the current environment of our country, the political environment of our country — I would have hoped that some adults could have seen better to make a smarter choice on that,” he said.