“Color Wars” was always supposed to be a way to promote school spirit and good-natured competition between classes at Polson High School in Montana.
On its surface, the concept is simple: Each class gets assigned a color — black for seniors, white for juniors, blue for sophomores, green for freshmen — and the class with the most students dressed in their assigned color on “Color Wars” day is declared the winner.
There had never before been a problem with the long-standing Homecoming tradition at the rural Montana school, about an hour north of Missoula, according to Polson District Superintendent Rex Weltz.
This year, Polson High is in the national spotlight after two students — one male and one female from the junior class’s “white team” — showed up to the annual Homecoming rally last Thursday wearing T-shirts with “Trump 2016 White Pride” written on the back.
The shirts, whose messages appeared to be hand-lettered with black marker, also included “offensive and inappropriate” messages on their fronts, Weltz said.
Photos showed that the front of the male student’s shirt was covered with a Confederate flag and large red letters that spelled “REDNECK.” On the front of the girl’s shirt was handwritten in all-caps: “WHITE POWER.”
The two students were asked to change clothes immediately, Weltz told KPAX News. But by then pictures of the students had hit Snapchat and Facebook and were soon widely circulated on social media, prompting shocked and angry responses far beyond Montana.
“We are better than this,” tweeted one woman who included a link to a news article about the controversy. “Don’t defend this kind of ‘spirit.’ #montana”
“Horrified by the racist actions of people in my hometown,” tweeted another person.
In a statement last week, Weltz called the incident “inexcusable.”
“The Polson School District does not and will not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form toward any person,” Weltz wrote. “As a District we are disappointed in the actions of those few students and will take appropriate action based on our policies and procedures, which may include discipline for the individual students. We applaud the students who stood up against this conduct and will continue to educate all of our students about our policies and practices forbidding discrimination in any form.”
The district has not identified the students and Weltz did not respond to a request for further comment Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana chimed in on an issue that “quickly got out of control,” and reminded people that both the Confederate flag and the “White Power” slogan are “symbols of hate and intolerance.”
” . . . It is important to remember that, while all students have First Amendment rights, schools have the authority and the responsibility to prohibit speech that is harmful to other students, and to maintain a safe learning environment,” Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the ACLU of Montana, said in a statement. “This incident sadly reflects how we are failing our children in teaching them mutual tolerance and respect for those of different backgrounds.”
Borgmann said the ACLU of Montana would be investigating the Homecoming incident and making sure Polson High School had appropriate anti-bullying and anti-racism policies in place.
Meanwhile, she encouraged anyone who was outraged — or who saw similar racist messages at the school — to protest peacefully or write a letter to the district superintendent.
“Document everything,” Bormann advised in the statement.
Polson has a population of about 4,500, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Though the city is on the Flathead Indian Reservation, more than three-quarters of its residents are white, according to Census figures.
A small crowd protesting the offending T-shirts formed at Polson’s Homecoming football game Friday, organized by Dustin Monroe, founder of the advocacy group Native Generational Change.
“Our kids should be able to go to school and not worry about people saying one race is better than another,” Monroe told Montana Public Radio. Those with him held signs that read “Native Lives Matter” and “Hate is a learned behavior,” the radio station reported.
According to MPR, the protest at the football game was growing tenser until a Polson High School junior named Michael Vergeront, who is white, took the megaphone.
“I get where they’re coming from, I get where you’re coming from,” Vergeront said, referring to the two students who had worn the T-shirts, according to the radio station. “I don’t think they were in the right, but at the same time I believe this is rooted in ignorance. They may not have understood the ramifications of their actions.”
Weltz told KPAX that future spirit-week activities would not be canceled because of the incident.
“We had a couple kids who made poor choices,” Weltz told the news station. “And really we don’t want to pull the activity and the program away for some bad choices.”