JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A pep club’s “country” theme, for which some student fans dressed like cowboys for a basketball game against a school from Alaska’s only Indian reserve, wasn’t intended to be “racially provocative,” but it had a negative effect that was “predictable and should have been prevented,” according to the findings from an investigation of the incident released Friday.
The investigation was conducted by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District following a Feb. 5 game between the Ketchikan Kings and the Metlakatla Chiefs.
The report from the borough school board and district administration said the Ketchikan High School pep club has long planned themed outfits for home games as a way to show school spirit. For the “country” theme, students wore outfits that included cowboy hats and plaid shirts, leading to an “association with a ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’ theme” that was foreseeable and should have been prevented, the report says. “For this we must take accountability,” it said.
The situation was “escalated” by the behavior of some Ketchikan students that “included inappropriate racist remarks and sounds directed toward the opposing team,” according to the report. The behaviors violated district policies and “have been handled according to the District’s student disciplinary policy,” the report said.
The report says the responsibility for what happened does not fall just on students, saying that they also “lacked adult guidance and adequate administrative oversight.”
The report includes apologies to Metlakatla and the Native community.
“We acknowledge that our actions were not sensitive nor displayed empathy and understanding of the historical and ongoing hardships of our Native community members,” the report says.
For many Native Americans, portrayals of “cowboys and Indians” conjure offensive stereotypes.
The report said the incident also hurt Ketchikan students and community members. “Ketchikan’s Native community was devalued and our students experienced mistreatment by their peers and others in the wake of the incident. Additionally, students who were committed to maintaining positive and appropriate behaviors have been implicated alongside the few who misbehaved,” the report says.
The report said the district would take several steps in response to the incident. Those include instituting a plan for school theme selections “that thoughtfully considers culture, race, and gender impacts;” outlining expectations for Ketchikan student fan behavior that includes “zero tolerance for hateful speech,” and conducting a racial equity audit of district policies.
The district plans to consult with the First Alaskans Institute on a plan for training and professional development related to “racial equity and healing,” the report says.
“We commit ourselves to doing this important work and will use this incident as a learning experience for the good of all of our students. We apologize and will do better moving forward,” the report says.
Taw Lindsey, superintendent of the Annette Island School District, which includes Metlakatla High School, said by email that he had been in staff meetings Friday but would “review the statement and prepare a response in the near future. I am pleased that the process is moving forward.”