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Middleton Heights staff placed on administrative leave over controversial Halloween outfits

Middleton School District Superintendent Josh Middleton announced Saturday morning at a special school board meeting that 14 employees involved in controversial Halloween photos circulating on social media have been placed on paid administrative leave.

After Superintendent Middleton’s announcement, the board went into executive session. Afterward, a statement was read, and it was announced that the investigation would be continuing.

The board did not take questions after reading its statement.

“This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District. This situation is being taken very seriously. We are in full support of our superintendent and administrative staff as a full investigation is being conducted, and are awaiting the results of the investigation,” the statement reads, in part. “This is an unfortunate incident of very poor judgment. Yet it is not indicative of the Middleton School District or our teachers as a whole.”

Superintendent Middleton also announced that a member of the district’s crisis team would be taking over day-to-day principal duties at Middleton Heights for the time being.

On Friday, photos of Middleton Heights Elementary staff donning Halloween costumes that portrayed a border wall reading “Make America Great Again” and stereotyped Mexicans emerged on social media. The photos, which were posted on the school district’s Facebook page, went viral.

Following an uproar online, Superintendent Middleton posted a video response on Facebook on Friday morning. As of this writing the video, as well as the entire district Facebook page, has been taken down. The administration section of Middleton Heights’ website is also unavailable.

“We are better than this,” he said in the video. “We embrace all students. We have a responsibility to teach and reach all students — period.”

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Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said her office received emails and calls from offended people all over the United States after news broke that employees of an elementary school in Middleton had dressed up as Mexican stereotypes and held a mock border wall that read “Make America Great Again.” Screenshot via Facebook

Several advocacy groups and nonprofits, including the ACLU of Idaho and Immigrant Justice Idaho, denounced the photos in a letter to the superintendent on Friday afternoon, per previous Statesman reporting.

“The intent or misjudgments of the individuals involved does not undo the trauma experienced by students, families and communities,” the letter reads. “The impact on these students does not stay only with them but has lasting effects beyond the school or classroom. We believe the school and classrooms have now become hostile environments that are not conducive to the education of the students.”

According to data from the U.S census, Middleton has a Latino population of 9.5 percent, while Middleton Heights Elementary is 12.9 percent Hispanic/Latino, according to Idaho Ed Trends.

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Screen shot of Heights Elementary Middleton school staff dressed for Halloween and shared on Facebook. Facebook screenshot

The pictures and subsequent backlash come as Tuesday’s midterm elections approach, and President Donald Trump has worked to make immigration a theme. Trump has said, “I don’t want them in this country,” in regards to a caravan of migrants seeking asylum coming through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

Superintendent Middleton also announced on Saturday that additional measures would be taken in the coming days, including increased security and administration at Middleton Heights, and staff sensitivity training. The district crisis team would be on the campus for “social-emotional well-being,” he said.

A handful of concerned adults attended Saturday’s meeting, with most feeling the actions of the staff were in poor taste.

Meredith St. Clair, a Middleton resident who spent 28 years as a teacher in public schools, wrote the board a letter, though she was unable to read it to them. In it, she describes her dismay; upon seeing the news last night, St. Clair said that her “stomach got physically ill.”

“I hold the professional standard of education very high and take it very, very seriously. And I feel that everyone does have a right to free speech and their own beliefs, politically and otherwise, but we cannot bring these into the classroom. That is not our goal of education,” St. Clair told the Statesman. “If we’re doing this overtly, what are the covert, the underlying messages, that are being sent to these children on a daily basis?”

Roberta Russell, a Boise parent who drove 30 or so miles to Saturday’s meeting, said there is no excuse for the staff’s actions. That includes whoever posted the content on the district’s social media page.

Russell, who has a junior high-age daughter, said it is hard to teach respect to a teenager when educators falter.

“I came because I wanted to observe the process and see how they were going to handle this incident, which has brought national attention to Idaho in a not-so-positive light, once again,” Russell said. “I don’t believe there is an excuse … at a minimum, it‘s a huge error in judgment by these educators.”

On Friday, The Idaho Human Rights Commission put out a short press release about the Idaho Human Rights Act of 1969 and federal civil rights statues that prohibit discrimination due to race, sex, national origin and other protected groups. They warned that discrimination can occur if an employer or school permits a hostile environment.

“Simply because conduct takes place as a so-called joke does not excuse otherwise unlawful conduct,” the statement from the commission said. “All employers and schools must act responsibly to avoid sanctioning displays and other conduct that could give rise to this type of discrimination not only because they have a legal responsibility to do [so] but also because it is the right thing to do.”

It’s possible the agency will do its own investigation into the matter, a spokesman for the Idaho Human Rights Commission told the Statesman Friday.

Idaho has protections against national origin discrimination, which occurs when someone is treated poorly because they are from another part of the world or a different ethnicity.

“We have received calls from concerned citizens, wondering what are their rights and what their protections are,” said Benjamin Earwicker, administrator for the Idaho Human Rights Commission. “I think the primary concern is that these are employees of the district, and not just fellow students, but actual teachers on school property engaged in this kind of display.”

Earwicker said about 10 people had called the office or contacted commissioners directly about the Middleton matter.

The next Middleton School District board meeting is set for Nov. 12.

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