Principal Mark Rowicki greeted his students at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Va., on Monday dressed as Donald Trump, a get-up that included a Trump campaign button pinned to his lapel and a “Make America Great Again” hat.
The school secretary also got in the spirit that day, donning a short blond wig, a chain belt and an orange jumpsuit — not unlike one worn by prisoners — with a “Hillary R. Clinton” name tag.
Their Halloween costumes have spurred criticism from some parents and school leaders. Some have accused the pair of pushing a political agenda on impressionable teenagers and bringing the ugliness generated by the presidential campaign into the school building.
Neither Rowicki nor the secretary, Stephanie Corbett, could be reached to comment Wednesday. Pictures of the pair in their costumes had appeared in a photo gallery on the school’s home page but were later taken down at the superintendent’s direction. The News Leader newspaper in Staunton first reported the story.
It is the latest example of the deeply polarizing presidential campaign cycle pushing its way into schools. Some teachers have avoided talking about the election altogether because it rouses too much anxiety and conflict among their students. Across the country, some students have repurposed campaign rhetoric to bully their classmates, targeting minority and immigrant students in particular.
Superintendent Linda G. Reviea said the school system is handling “the situation as a personnel matter.”
“It is a long-standing tradition of Staunton City Schools — and of many school divisions across the United States — to allow students and staff to engage in festive activities and dress in costume for Halloween,” Reviea said in a statement. “That said, the particular costumes worn by two employees at R.E. Lee High School were in poor judgment, especially so given the current political climate and the extraordinarily strong sentiments for the 2016 presidential candidates.”
Many parents were angry with the pair for injecting politics into the school building, worried that the principal’s Trump costume could make some students deeply uncomfortable.
“What about the students whose parents aren’t voting for Trump? What about Hispanic, Middle Eastern, LGBT and, you know, FEMALE students? What message are you sending to any of them when their high school principal dresses up like a man who wants to deport them, says things like ‘she’s a nasty woman,’ ” wrote one Facebook user whose children attend nearby schools.
Makeba Robinson, whose son attends A.R. Ware Elementary School in Staunton, is part of a group campaigning to change the name of the high school, one of several named for Confederate generals in the state. She learned the principal had dressed as Trump from a Snapchat photo and was furious.
Robinson, who is African American, said the principal’s decision to dress as Trump, a candidate whose rhetoric has been criticized as racist and Islamophobic, might contribute to the impression that certain groups of students are unwelcome at the high school.
“This is a school where everyone should feel welcome,” Robinson said. “Anything that promotes or encourages divisiveness is not what we need.”
According to the school division’s policy, school employees are barred from supporting or opposing a candidate or political party while on the job. If they do engage in political activities, they are required to make clear that they are not representing the school system.
The rules “are intended to minimize distractions from instruction, to assure that no public funds are used to support any candidate for public office, and to assure that the public is not given the false impression that the school division supports or opposes any political candidate or party.”
School board member Laura Kleiner said she learned about the incident when a local newspaper reporter called her for comment. After viewing the photograph on Lee’s website, she said she called the school system and asked for the photo to be taken down.
“I appreciate all of the traditions that we have at our high school. Students and staff dress up for Halloween, and I love that they can be lighthearted and enjoy holidays. But I think that better judgment could have been used,” Kleiner said.
“It was supposed to be taken as a joke . . . but it also could offend others,” Kleiner said. “I think it’s just important to remember in this political climate to stay more neutral and make decisions that wouldn’t be taken in a way that would offend someone.”
Shyanne Shifflett, 18, a senior at the high school, said she laughed off the costumes as a joke. Her principal is known for being a bit self-deprecating, a quality that endears him to students, and she did not take offense at his costume. Shifflett, who is voting for Clinton, said she even laughed at the secretary’s costume — an apparent nod to calls to jail the Democratic presidential nominee — though she acknowledged it went “a little too far.”
“There are people who are saying that they are using the school to push their political agendas, but I just think it was supposed to be funny,” Shifflett said. She said many of her classmates share her view that the costumes were just a joke. “I just don’t think it was really harmful to anyone at all.”