Middleton school district to investigate staff dressed as border wall, Mexicans

Photos of staff at an elementary school in Middleton who were dressed for Halloween as Mexicans, while others posed behind a cardboard cutout of a border wall that says “Make America Great Again,” have gone viral.

Superintendent Josh Middleton posted a video on the district’s Facebook page on Friday morning denouncing the costumes, which were worn by staff at Middleton Heights Elementary School. He said he offers his “sincerest and deepest apologies” to the families and patrons of the district.

In a statement provided to the Statesman, Middleton said he was contacted Thursday evening by a parent who was concerned about the photos.

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

In its six hours online, the superintendent’s video has nearly 18,000 views and about 1,700 comments. The comments overwhelmingly denounce the district’s post and the photos, and many people commenting are calling for the staff in the photos to be fired or to be punished for wearing the costumes.

The photos were posted from the Middleton School District’s Facebook page with a caption that said, in part, “It was a great day to be a Heights Hawk! We celebrated our RESPECT character winners, single and double marathon runners.”

The photos are now circulating across Facebook and Twitter across the U.S. Idaho DACA Students’ Facebook page also posted the photos, noting that the costumes are disheartening, heartbreaking and not funny.

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The Middleton teachers’ costumes depicting Mexican stereotypes were roundly criticized. Screenshot via Facebook

Twelve Idaho-based advocacy groups and nonprofits, including the ACLU of Idaho, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, Immigrant Justice Idaho and PODER of Idaho, sent a letter to the district’s superintendent Friday afternoon stating they were deeply concerned about the costumes.

“The intent or misjudgments of the individuals involved does not undo the trauma experienced by students, families and communities,” the letter states. “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.”

The letter urged the district to review the State Board of Education’s policies and civil and human rights laws on discrimination and harassment.

“Do I think there was a malicious intent with this decision? No, I don’t,” the superintendent said in the video. “Was there a poor judgment involved? Absolutely. And we now have to own those decisions.”

District administrators are actively investigating the incident, he said.

“I was shown those photos and was deeply troubled by our staff members (who chose to) wear those costumes that were clearly insensitive and inappropriate,” Superintendent Middleton said. “... Our time right now is going to be devoted to investigating those events and those poor decisions that were made.”

In a Facebook post, the Middleton Police Department said it was stepping up patrols and presence near the school on Friday.

The Statesman has reached out to the district to determine if the post violated the district’s social media policy and to see if the district is considering any kind of punishment for those wearing the costumes. It also asked who is in charge of running the district’s social media sites. The Statesman has not yet received a reply to those queries.

The district’s technologies policy does state that all users, including students, parents and staff, are “expected to use good judgment” and to follow the policy, including encouraging users to “be safe, appropriate, careful and kind” and to “use good common sense,” among other expectations.

A petition titled “No Racism in Middleton School District” was created Friday in response to the incident.

A 2017 photo from the elementary school’s website, which has been circulating on social media, shows Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra visiting the school for Halloween that year. Ybarra was not at the school in 2018, according to State Department of Education spokeswoman Allison Westfall. Westfall provided Ybarra’s official schedule for this week, which does not show she was at the elementary school this year.

The costume photos come on the heels of President Donald Trump making fighting immigration a central theme of his run-ups to the midterms and recently accused a caravan of thousands of migrants traveling through Mexico on their way north of trying to “invade” the United States. “I don’t want them in this country,” Trump said of the thousands of migrants working their way to the border.

According to U.S. census data, the Latino population of Middleton is 9.5 percent. Data from Idaho Ed Trends, which is managed by Idaho Education News, shows that 12.9 percent of Middleton Heights Elementary students are Hispanic/Latino.

The Middleton School District is asking voters to weigh in on three separate bond measures for Election Day on Tuesday, including one $23.7 million bond for a new elementary school, a $2.75 million bond to address security improvements within the district and a $2.4 million bond to allow the district to make future land purchases for a new school or schools.

Ruth Brown is a breaking news reporter. Christina Lords is the breaking news editor. You can reach them at 208-377-6207 or 208-377-6435, respectively.