MIDDLETON — The Middleton School District has placed 14 employees on leave and installed a new acting principal at Heights Elementary School after staff members dressed in racially charged Halloween costumes earlier this week.
Superintendent Josh Middleton announced the leave and principal change at the outset of a special board meeting Saturday morning at the district office. He did not disclose the names of the employees placed on leave, but emphasized that all employees involved in the situation have been placed on leave.
In response to the controversy, Mark Hopkins has been named acting principal at Heights Elementary “for now,” Middleton said. Hopkins began the year as principal of the district’s Purple Sage Elementary.
On Wednesday, for Halloween, multiple Heights employees dressed in costumes depicting a border wall, while other staffers donned brightly-colored Mexican-themed clothing, including fake mustaches and sombreros. Photos of the costumes were uploaded to the district’s Facebook page but were subsequently deleted. Several people online called the costumes racist, offensive and insensitive. News coverage of the costumes went viral Friday, and district staffers were inundated with phone calls, emails and online comments.
Middleton entered a closed-door executive session after his announcement Saturday to discuss further personnel or disciplinary matters. When asked by Idaho Education News, Middleton said the district complied with the Idaho Open Meeting law by posting notice of the meeting more than 24 hours in advance.
Idaho code requires certificated district employees to be paid during involuntary administrative leave, unless a criminal court order prevents them from being in the presence of students or adults at the school, or if the employee is being detained in jail or prison.
During Saturday’s meeting, Middleton unveiled a six-point crisis plan in response to the situation. The plan included placing employees on leave “for their safety and to provide due process” and activating the district’s crisis response team and unveiling a training program. The plan also includes a heightened, daily security presence at Heights Elementary, as well as extra administrative presence.
Board members participated in a nearly two-hour executive session before returning to open session and reading a statement condemning the employees’ action.
“This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District,” the statement read, in part. “We are in full support of our superintendent and administrative staff as a full investigation is being conducted.”
The board took no further action and adjourned shortly before noon.
Genesis Gomez-Lara attended Saturday’s meeting after hearing about the controversy late Thursday. Gomez-Lara had never attended a school board meeting before, but said she felt it was important to be there Saturday. She also said many of her friends in the Hispanic community were afraid to come to the meeting.
“I was mad and heartbroken,” she said. “This wasn’t poor judgement. These are adults and they know what is right or wrong, especially as teachers.”
Gomez-Lara said she hopes to see justice come out of this controversy, and thinks the staff members involved should be fired. She said many parents would not be able to have confidence in any of the teachers involved in the costume controversy.
Middleton resident Heather Burch, who lives across from Heights Elementary, attended the meeting after seeing news vehicles parked near her yard Friday.
“I’ve lived here since I was 9 and I feel bad,” Burch said. “I don’t want my town to be known for that.”
“Unfortunately, we have educators who chose to do what they did, but I think we also have some really great teachers her too,” Burch continued.
On Wednesday, the district will dismiss classes early and all personnel will participate in cultural sensitivity training. Middleton also called for long-term, ongoing staff training.
“The most important piece of this is long-term,” he said. “At the start of every year, this needs to be part of our new school year training.”
About 20 people, including several people who reside outside the district, attended Saturday’s meeting. Middleton police stationed four cars near the district parking lot, and one local officer monitored portions of the meeting from the back of the room. Middleton said an increased security presence was part of the crisis response plan. He commended local police for their support.
The meeting itself was cordial, and there were no disruptions, outbursts or protests.
Middleton said the district launched an investigation into the matter “first thing Friday morning.”
“The investigation rolls on,” Middleton said. “Of course, we all got emails and phone calls, the suggestions in terms of what needs to be done, but there is a due process and our employees have due process rights. That investigation started first thing Friday morning and went all day long.”