The collateral damage of a missed opportunity

Sometimes life just steps right in and provides an illustration of a key principle, almost as if on cue. My apologies for the length of this, but the topic merits it.

For those of you who have read my bio, you know that I work in Seattle but commute from a small town in the Midwest. There’s a separate blog post needed to explain why, but the town I live in is small enough for us to know everyone, and be very actively involved in our community.

Last week someone at our high school wrote racist comments, a death threat, and the names of a number of the black students at the school on a stall door in one of the boy’s bathrooms. No ambiguity here. Horrible, fundamentally unacceptable, reprehensible thoughts. Scary too.

How the school responded to this presents a crystal-clear example of how ambiguity + fear of failure = colossal missed opportunity for a community and for its students. And it offers a heartbreaking follow-up to my post last week about ambiguity and alignment of your principles and ethics.

Here’s what happened:

  • A death threat naming six of the high school’s black students was discovered on a bathroom stall door at around 2:30 pm last Thursday.

Here’s what was done:

  • The six students were pulled from class that same day by the administration, informed of this, asked if they knew of anyone who might have done this.
  • The next day the police department was pulled into this, and spent the day at the school investigating the incident.
  • This same day – the day after the discovery – the administration met with the six children’s parents.
  • A letter was finally sent home to students this past Tuesday, identifying this as a student safety issue, and stating that “racist or threatening behavior will not be tolerated.” You can see it here.

Here’s the issue. With one exception, what they did wasn’t wrong, it just could have been a whole lot righter. And bolder. And more educational, for everyone.

The one thing they did wrong? Waiting until the following day to tell the parents. My heart goes out to the parents of those six children when those kids came home and told them what had happened at school that day. How alone they all must have felt. I don’t need to dwell on the tragedy here, the local Fox affiliate got there way before me.

So, the police got called in to investigate, and a letter went out to the students and parents. A safety issue. My daughter summed this up well by saying it screamed ‘this is not our fault.’ I was profoundly let down, feeling decisions were guided by a desire not to fail, not to make a mistake, and to minimize the visibility of this incident.

Retreating to this being primarily a safety issue is a red herring. This is unequivocally a racism issue. And it’s not about the high school. It’s about the entire community. Whoever wrote these threats does not live at the high school. Any one of us may be running into this kid on a ball field, in a supermarket, anywhere. The school provided the medium for the expression, but those racist thoughts leave the school ground at 3:05 and go somewhere.

The school administration got the whole visibility opportunity wrong. They claimed raising visibility would satisfy “that person’s need to do it and maybe there is more that will happen.” Huh? I can’t think of a better way to ensure this doesn’t happen again than getting the entire school and community to get out in public, now, and express their opposition to this kind of behavior.

And “out in public” is where the six students and their families need to feel supported, and safe. These six children and their families should feel comfortable knowing more than the school and the police are looking out for them. Worse, time matters here, a lot. These children and their families needed that support the moment this was discovered. Importantly, the opportunity for members of the community to show their support in a timely manner was also taken away too.

What if the actions were guided by a fear of not succeeding? Success is not about catching whoever it is who wrote the graffiti. It’s about demonstrating unambiguous intolerance to racism, in the school system and community as a whole.

How could this have been handled differently?

  • They could have held a school-wide assembly to inform the students not of the threat as much as of the intolerance of racism. Of the vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have called a joint City Council-School Board emergency public meeting to shine a bright light on these two institutions’ intolerance to racism and vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have held a community-wide rally to ensure no one missed an opportunity to show support for these children and their families.

Hiding this or minimizing its visibility means that if whoever it is who made these threats is never caught, then he or she or they will have won. Even if caught, the legal process will be conducted in rooms, in buildings, away from the community.

What a spectacular opportunity to bring the community together and shine a big, bright light on this. And what a colossally great learning opportunity, missed. My daughter is taking a “Race, Prejudice, and Intolerance” class in that very school, right now. Holy cow, why not get the entire student body in on a real-time lesson. How many people can say they’ve taken part in an anti-racism activity, as a student, in their own school?

And that list I came up with about how this could have been handled differently? It can all still be done too.

And this isn’t personal or about the people involved. It’s about the direction they chose. I know the school principal and many of the school administration and teachers. These are smart, caring, very hardworking people. People that make you proud that they do what they do to provide a great education for our kids. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to witness the straightforward, sensible path that produced this missed opportunity.

A fear of failure produced this. Nothing done wrong, but plenty of collateral damage, and six students, their families, and the community poorer for the experience.

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9 Responses to “The collateral damage of a missed opportunity”

  1. susan cashen Says:

    These are great ideas — can you rally students/the school to move forward with some of the events to demonstrate support — albeit delayed???


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Thanks for the support and encouragement Susan! The challenge is getting the school administration and school board to acknowledge that while the act took place on the school’s grounds, the sentiments expressed in that act reach beyond the school’s borders and are a broader community concern. Time is less of a factor than embracing the scope, so in that respect I think there’s still plenty of time to act, along the lines of what you suggest. I forwarded a link to my blog to each of the city council members, and to each member of the school board, and am now directing my energy and actions there. Thanks for reading, Pete


  2. Peter U Says:

    I couldn’t grasp this incident . . . felt somewhere in my gut that the response has been sticking our heads in the sand. Your article nails it on the head and I wish it were a letter to the editor in the local paper – I am glad you forwarded it to school board & city council (how about police too?). This is the second time that race has raised its head in our community recently and the second time that the response is shutting ourselves down in our little homes, putting our fingers in our ears, and saying “la la la la la la”, . . . this time certainly more so.


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Thanks for the comment and support, Peter. My post was forwarded to the editor of the local papers, so we will see how far they run with it. And the City Manager forwarded it to the Chief of Police. I expect this will get out in the open and more visibly addressed early next week. That said, it will have been close to two weeks from the incident, but at least it will have gotten placed in front of everyone. Apparently there was a segment on CNN about this yesterday, although I can’t find it on their website. Thanks again Peter.


  3. Mary Jarosz Says:

    Peter said I should read your blog because it was so powerful. I read it and completely agree that it’s this type of thinking and action that must be followed to eradicate racism. When I first heard about the incident it seemed incomprehensible because it’s the 21st century and we have progressed beyond race issues. Boy was I naive.


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      That is so very kind of you Mary, and I think many of us share your bewilderment that racism is something that still occurs. But as I write those words, I also realize how naive the assumption is that it shouldn’t exist. Another reader emailed me separately, observing that racism is likely much more prevalent than we would all like to believe, which to me means it’s all the more important that we publicly and forcefully oppose it when we do see it.


  4. Jennifer Drobac Says:

    Your post title of “collateral damage” is an interesting choice. As you know, it was a euphemism used during the Vietnam War for “friendly fire,” or the killing of non-combatants. The “friendly fire” in this case was the school’s firing off of the recent letter which characterized the hate message as a student safety issue rather than as an act of heinous racism. I am reminded of a quote: “Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people… Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea.” Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf” (1926)

    How ironic that the school used propaganda ostensibly to combat a (racist) threat in the same way that Hitler did to promote it. And if the community does nothing to call the foul both in the first instance (the racism) and in the subsequent propaganda, then where is the truth that you called for in your last post? Individuals behave outwardly (defined truth) in ways that may be inconsistent with what they believe (actual truth). Groups can do the same. Those groups might be school boards, city councils, or small Midwestern town families. Your post may be one of many individual expressions of actual truth about the underlying threat. However, the community also needs to respond. Your daughter and her class might be the first group. However, I am reluctant to ask our children to clean up the collateral damage of propaganda—let alone the underlying damage of brutal racism. I wish you and your (adult) community god-speed in eradicating the ambiguity of the propagandist message to reveal (with a good bathroom mirror) the writing on the wall.


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Well, Jennifer, that’s a very succinct assessment of this ambiguous and uncomfortable juncture we find ourselves in as a community. I value your observation about the propaganda is playing in this, and I think it’s noteworthy that I have not been contacted by any member of the School Board in response to my post (I forwarded it, along with the email I sent the school principal, and got a confirmation of delivery).

      Ignoring the messages that are uncomfortable or challenge the defined truth is another way of promoting the message you want to promote, and it is very unfortunate that no one on the school board saw either this initial racist incident as the opportunity I called out, nor my points as the next opportunity.

      And you are so correct to point out pushing down onto our children to do the legwork on is both unfair, and completely sidesteps the responsibilities we adults have, as parents, and as leaders in the organizations involved, and in the community.

      Well said, Jennifer, thank you for reading, and for your comments.



  5. A spontaneous reaction « Open Ambition Says:

    […] high school, which revealed the complexity and range of our community’s response.  I wrote about this at the time it happened, how in general many opportunities were missed to both care for those involved, as well as make the […]


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