STURGIS | Sturgis Brown High School will forfeit Friday’s homecoming football game against Pine Ridge High School and also cancel its homecoming dance and parade, following a racist incident Wednesday that involved students.
The Meade School Board voted 8-0 at 4:30 p.m. Thursday to cancel all remaining 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 and other school and city officials.
The goal moving forward will be to create something positive from an incident that has sullied the school’s and community’s reputation.
“That’s not what western South Dakota or Sturgis is about,” Kirkegaard said. “I can’t defend those actions, but I can try my best to make sure it never happens again.”
Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen said the greater community needed to also make a statement condemning the incident and reaffirming inclusive values. He planned to meet with city council members soon to consider the options.
“Our community does not treat people that way,” Carstensen 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."
Kirkegaard said Sturgis Brown discontinued its official car-smashing homecoming activity about five years ago. “There was no value to us doing that,” he said.
Students continued to hold the tradition on their own, he said.
The current lack of school sponsorship doesn’t absolve the district, Kirkegaard said. “It still involved some of our kids and our festivity, homecoming,” he said. “I can’t make light of the fact it never should have happened.”
Pine Ridge Principal Michael Carlow, who functions as superintendent for the district, commended Kirkegaard for taking responsibility and for his efforts to address the issue. At Kirkegaard’s invitation, Pine Ridge High School had planned to take it’s JROTC Color Guard to the game and to provide a singer for the “Lakota Flag Song” before "The Star-Spangled Banner." This was before the game was canceled.
Meanwhile, Chairman Harold C. Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said he was not surprised by photos showing a hateful “SS” also painted on the smashed car. Online commenters said the letters could instead represent Sturgis Scoopers.
The letters commonly refer to the Schutzstaffel, elite political soldiers of Nazi Germany associated with racial purges.
Frazier, who represents a reservation in north central South Dakota away from Pine Ridge, strongly condemned the incident.
“Today we all stand witness to racism leaking through the veil of privilege that once again stares at my people,” Frazier said in a statement. “This time the behavior is directed at our children. In yet another case those who cannot defend themselves were attacked by those did not know better, all the while being watched by those who do nothing to stop it.
“How many times do we have to send our school children to our sacred Black Hills only to be verbally and physically abused with racism and bigotry by those who occupy such a sacred place?”
The Sturgis Police Department and Sturgis Brown student council also issued statements of apology Thursday.
"The actions of a few do not represent Sturgis Brown High School or the Community of Sturgis," Sturgis Police said in a Facebook post. "We understand the anger being expressed towards the situation."
Said the student council: "Everyone deserves the highest amount of respect; racism is not something that should have to be tolerated by anyone.”
In a joint statement with the Meade District School Board, Kirkegaard said they were “appalled and disgusted by the racist comments."
He said the district was working with police to determine who among those at the rally were responsible before determining consequences.
Homecoming was canceled in the best interests of students, Kirkegaard said.
“We didn’t want to potentially escalate anything,” he said.
Mayor Carstensen blamed immaturity for the incident and questioned whether participating students understood the hurtfulness of their actions. “And it does hurt,” he said. “I’ve heard from people in the community. This offends them.”
Kirkegaard said he wanted 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.”