Middleton leaders say they’ve learned from last year’s Halloween nightmare

Middleton School District staff won’t be wearing costumes this Halloween.

Teachers and administrators instead decided to dress for the theme of “Middleton Proud” Thursday, wearing school colors or attire celebrating the small Canyon County district.

One year ago, Middleton Heights Elementary School landed in a national controversy and drew international ire — after photos surfaced of staffers dressed up as a replica of President Trump’s border wall, while other staffers wore somberos and serapes and other stereotypical Mexican symbols.

The controversy kicked off a turbulent and divisive year for the district, including an uproar over the departure of a high school principal, the resignation of a superintendent and attempts to recall three school board members.

Today, the district has a new superintendent in Sherawn Reberry, who started in August. Heights has a new principal, and all three trustees survived a recall.

In reaction to Halloween last year, district leaders say they’ve implemented new and ongoing cultural competency trainings.

“None of us can change what happened in the past, but we can learn,” Reberry said. “So we really are about building relationships, working with the community, the teachers at all of the schools … and really looking forward to how we can make a difference for all of our students in the future.”

The fallout from Halloween 2018

About 13 percent of Middleton’s student body is Hispanic or Latino, compared to 18 percent statewide. The Caldwell school district, just over 10 minutes away, is 62 percent Hispanic or Latino.

That said, the local Hispanic and Latino population has been growing. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 8 percent of Middleton residents were Hispanic or Latino. By 2017, that was up to 14 percent.

The Halloween incident sparked a caustic reaction in the Treasure Valley and around the country. Some Hispanic residents and researchers told Nicole Foy of the Idaho Press that the costumes reflected a legacy of discrimination in the Valley and problems in the education system. Other residents rallied behind the teachers in the photos, or simply wanted the controversy to go away.

Then-superintendent Josh Middleton apologized quickly after the photos were posted online, and suspended staff for a time to investigate. Ultimately, all teachers and staff were reinstated except the Heights principal, Foy reported.

Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said she thinks the Halloween photos caught the district off-guard. Before the photos went viral, she said, she hadn’t heard many complaints from district parents.

Afterward, Gonzalez met with superintendent Middleton and stressed the importance of implementing ongoing cultural sensitivity training for staff and reaching out to Hispanic parents.

Lisa Pennington, director of curriculum and assessment in Middleton, said ongoing training is now a district focus.

Last year, the district added cultural sensitivity training to a digital platform called SafeSchools, which staff will be required to take throughout the year. This winter, for example, staff training includes a  25-minute video on diversity awareness, and a cultural competence and racial bias segment.

“It’s been a continual process,” Pennington said.  “It’s an ongoing conversation and we learn something new each day. I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned is that we need to continue to have those conversations and be open and willing to learn as a staff, and as a community, about cultural competency.”

The district also hosted a number of speakers last year who addressed students and staff after the Halloween incident. Those included Ben Ibale, the human rights and civil rights coordinator for the Washington Education Association; Pablo Cartaya, a Cuban-American author who spoke with fourth- and fifth-grade students and José Hernández, a astronaut and the son of Mexican farmworkers.

Following Ibale’s visit, Pennington said the district put a focus on thinking through “intent vs. impact.”

“I think that’s resonated because I hear staff members — and I think all of us — just process ‘what is the intent of doing this, and what is the impact going to be?'” Pennington said. “And it’s not just cultural competency, but really with everything we do.”

Moving forward

Ongoing training is only part of the picture, Gonzalez said. She told then-superintendent Middleton that communication with parents would also be important. After Middleton resigned, Gonzalez said, she hadn’t heard much about what the district did to follow through.

“I would hope that they would really step out and get to know the community better,” Gonzalez said. “They just need to really go out and open their doors to the community to invite them into their district. There is a lot they can learn on both ends.”

Cynthia Hutchinson, who works with migrant families and English language learners in the district, said she fielded calls from parents after the photos, offered apologies and answered questions.

She doesn’t think there’s been any lasting tension with the parents she works with, as evidenced by new enrollment in the district’s English learner and migrant program, which offers extra assistance to children of agricultural employees who move frequently for work.

The number of migrant families enrolled in the program has doubled in the past year, Hutchinson said. She also saw a record number of parents attend a family night geared toward migrant families.

“As far as any tensions, I don’t see that,” she said. “If I did I probably wouldn’t see the increase that I’ve seen with parental involvement and enrollment.”

Reberry, who has been on the job just three months, said she has met with community groups such as the City Council and assembled a group of community advisers to weigh in on the district’s performance.

She has not reached out to the Hispanic or Latino community specifically outside of those groups, but said she plans to make herself available to meet with any community member who want her ear.

Nichole Kristensen, the new principal of Heights elementary, plans to take the same approach.

Kristensen replaced Kim Atkinson, who was not reinstated at Heights after the Halloween photos, the Idaho Press reported. Kristensen spent this summer meeting with families and staff about their concerns, and what they were hoping for in the upcoming school year.
“Any time there is someone that needs to have a conversation, I make myself available,” Kristensen said. “It really starts with building relationships.”

That approach has made the difference for Amanda, a Hispanic Middleton resident with three students at Heights elementary.

Amanda, who asked that EdNews not use her last name to protect her children from retaliation, had concerns about an incident last year where her daughter was bullied because of the color of her skin. Amanda doesn’t think the former principal made addressing the incident a priority.

But this year, when another of her children was bullied in a non-racial incident, Amanda said Kristensen sat down with her immediately to address the issue.

“I was really happy with the outcomes,” Amanda said. “Long story short, I feel like a lot has changed in the district — and for the better — as far as the new superintendent and the principal.”

Amanda thinks the leadership change has helped quell anger over the Halloween photos, too. The pictures were “hard to see,” she said. She knew some of the staff directly — even had one of the teachers when she was a student at Heights — and had a hard time reconciling the photos with the educators she knew were “not like that.”

A year later, Amanda thinks the district is headed the right direction.

“I just didn’t want that situation to define my whole outlook on Middleton,” she said. “Because in the big scheme of things, it’s a good district.”

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