STURGIS | The Meade School District's goal moving forward following a racial incident during homecoming week is to create something positive from an incident that has sullied the school’s and community’s reputation, the school's superintendent says.
Sturgis Brown High School forfeited Friday’s homecoming football game against Pine Ridge High School and also cancelled its homecoming dance and parade, following an incident Wednesday that involved students.
But instead of dwelling on the incident, the district is ready to address its cultural insensitivity, Meade School District Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said.
"We are looking at a program called Restorative Justice," he said. "We think the outcome will be much more productive by having ongoing dialogue as opposed to slapping someone on the hand for the offense. There is need for discipline, but the real key is that if we are going to change, we need to look at it as more than one time discipline event."
Restorative justice is a program that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
"I don't believe our school or the kids who were at the bash were showing racial insensitivity, it truly was that they hadn't thought about it," he said.
The Meade School Board voted 8-0 Thursday to cancel the homecoming activities to avoid even a potential for endangering students, said Superintendent Don Kirkegaard.
Students who painted a car with "Go back to the Rez" during an unsanctioned Wednesday night homecoming rally also painted the school and community as racist, said an apologetic Kirkegaard.
Kirkegaard said several students had been suspended in connection with the incident, but would not share numbers. He said that even though it was a non-school event and done on non-school property, the basis for the suspensions was based on the fact that a post on social media showed the car was clearly parked in the high school parking lot.
"It was not authorized or any part of our school events or activities," he said. "When non-school events influence the ability to have school, that becomes a situation we have to address. I couldn't just say we were not going to do anything because it was a non-school activity because it still was done semi in conjunction with homecoming."
Some parents have said on social media that they would seek out lawyers to fight the suspensions because the incident was not a school event.
"Obviously that is a concern. We don't want to have litigation, but at the same time we truly have gone at a cautious pace so that we didn't react up front," he said.
Photos circulating on social media after Wednesday night’s rally showed students using sledgehammers to smash a car spray painted with "Go back to the Rez," slang for Native American reservation. One photo shows a young man above a caption that includes an obscenity followed by "Pine Ridge."
"The car along with the profanity is what became the real issue," he said.
Kirkegaard said he believes the students who did this didn't think through what they were doing.
Kirkegaard said he will to work with school staff to make sure students understand why their actions are wrong.
“We will try to educate all of our kids that words are hurtful, and there are consequences,” he said. “At least we can hope that it never happens again.”
District statistics show that about 4 percent of students in the Meade School District are identified as Native American or Alaskan native.
Kirkegaard said he found out about the incident Wednesday evening via text message by the high school principal and others who had seen the information online.
Kirkegaard said Wilson had sent a note to Pine Ridge school officials that night apologizing and letting them know they would deal with it swiftly.
"We told them that what happened by no means reflects the spirit of our school," he said.
Kirkegaard said he began meeting with staff about 6:45 a.m. Thursday at the high school and chief of police Geody VanDewater.
Early Thursday, Kirkegaard had received a call from the United States Attorney for the District of South Dakota, Randolph J. Seiler, in Sioux Falls, an email from the South Dakota High School Activities Association and conversations with several Native American leaders.
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"They wanted to know what our action was going to be to rectify the situation," he said.
The high school administrators called for an assembly of all students Thursday morning at the high school to address the situation.
"I didn't give the script for what should be said, but we were all on the same page as to what the message was," he said.
Native American students at the high school were brought together Thursday morning also and addressed by the adminstrators.
"Mr. Wilson went and visited with them to make sure they felt comfortable. We wanted to let them know that what transpired was not the feeling of the school. We wanted them to know if they had any concerns they were welcome to share them with us," he said. "It was proactive on our part to make sure everyone felt safe and secure."
Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater said he reached out to tribal law enforcement following the incident and invited them to the game to show a unified force before the game was cancelled by school administration.
"I wanted them to know that this isn't who we are as a community. These were actions that went astray," he said.
There were concerns with the Pine Ridge team and community coming to Sturgis for the game, that is why the administration cancelled the event, he said.
No criminal charges came out of the racial incident. VanDewater said initially there was a question as to whether or not the car was vandalized.
"This was a car the kids procured that was a car getting ready to be crushed and recycled," he said. "There was no one who lost a car to vandals. There was no violation of the law that we have seen."
VanDewater was a part of the conversations with the school administration when they were weighing whether or not to call off the parade and football game.
"We offered our support, but the ultimate decisions were with the administration," he said. "As much as everybody wanted to see the game and play the game, we had to think about the bigger picture, not only the safety of the kids, but also the citizens who were going to show up at the game."
Former Sturgis Brown High School principal Rich Deaver said the whole incident was "very unfortunate."
"I think it's a wake up call for us," he said. "We need to be diligent about students understanding these things. It would have helped if there would have been an adult nearby that would have seen this and stopped it before it got to this point. They could have told the kids that what was written could be misconstrude. That it wasn't a sanctioned event caused it to be something it shouldn't have been."
In year's past, SBHS did have the car smash and students wrote things on the car in the spirit of homecoming, but this year those students maybe got caught up in the moment and didn't realize that it could be taken the way it was, Deaver said.
"I like to look at it as an honest mistake. I don't know the details, but I've talked to a lot of kids and they don't believe that it really represents who they are and they want to do something about changing that image," he said.
Deaver is adviser to the K-Club at Sturgis Brown High School and those students want to play a large role in the upcoming food drive so that they can show people they are better than the people they are being portrayed in the media.
"That's not the kind of image they want the town and the school and everybody else to have of high school kids," he said.
Deaver doesn't dispute the fact that there is racism against Native Americans in this state.
"In my 25 years at the school, I never once observed any racism, especially against Indian students," he said. "It's here. I'm sure there is racism in Meade County one way or another, but I don't think that what happened really reflects the attitude of students in this school."
Students need to know what constitutes racism, Deaver said.
"They need to think about the words they are using. I don't think that was thought out at all," he said.