A total of 14 faculty and staff members at an Idaho elementary school have been placed on administrative leave after photos of them dressed as a border wall and Mexicans for Halloween brought the school unwanted national attention.
The Middleton School District and its Heights Elementary School came under fire last week after the photos of the costumes -- which were posted to the district's Facebook page -- went viral on social media. Middleton Superintendent Josh Middleton announced the suspensions of those involved at a school board meeting called Saturday to address the controversy, the Idaho Statesman reported.
A member of the school district's crisis team has taken over the duties of principal at the elementary school for the time being, Middleton said in a statement posted to the school's website.
The superintendent said that members of the crisis team will be on hand at the school this week, as will security officers. The district will also start providing cultural sensitivity training for all staff members, beginning Wednesday.
The Middleton Police Department also added extra patrols and a presence at the school to ensure the children remained safe.
The incident has become the source of dueling petitions, including one established on MoveOn.org demanding a proactive approach from the school district. As of Monday afternoon, just over 10,000 had signed the petition.
A Change.org petition seeking to save the jobs of Heights' principal, teachers and staff, had more than 12,000 signatures by the same time period. The person who established the petition wrote that supporters of the group "believe (the incident has) been blown out of proportion, as this was a team building exercise done after school with no students present or involved."
Middleton said in Saturday’s statement that the school district “is under a microscope,” but that he views the situation as an opportunity for employees to learn and grow.
"The events of this week, we take very seriously," Middleton said. "As hard as these events are for ALL involved, we must learn from this and be better as an entire staff for our students, parents and the community we represent."
The superintendent's statement echoed the sentiments he expressed Friday, when he apologized in a short video posted to the school district's Facebook page. The Facebook page has since been made unavailable to the public.
>> Related story: Idaho superintendent apologizes after teachers dress up as border wall, Mexicans
It was on that same page that the public first glimpsed the photos, which were later deleted but had already been copied and circulated on social media. In one photo, six employees are dressed as pieces of a cardboard wall painted to resemble bricks.
“Make America Great Again” is spelled out in red, white and blue letters, and one woman has a crown and torch as the Statue of Liberty. Another waves an American flag and a third wears a patriotic-themed hat.
In a second photo, several employees are dressed in garishly colorful ponchos, sombreros and fake mustaches. They pose and shake maracas for the camera.
The photos prompted outrage across the country, as well as within the Idaho community. The ACLU of Idaho on Saturday published a statement condemning the costumes and urging school district officials to use the incident proactively to engage the school community and the larger community of Middleton to "create a welcoming environment where all students can thrive."
"Regardless of the intent of a teacher's actions in the classroom, we must focus on and give weight to the impact of such actions on the students who rely on teachers and other school officials for guidance and support throughout their educational experience" the ACLU chapter's statement said. "School districts, their staff and other agents have obligations under federal law, state law, and district policies to prevent and protect students, staff, and others from discrimination, bullying, intimidation, and harassment."
Administrators of the Idaho DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Facebook page also posted the photos last week, describing them as "extremely disheartening" and said that all children have the right to a school that celebrates all cultural backgrounds.
"Imagine how some of the students felt when they walked into their classrooms on Halloween and saw their teachers (people they look up to) dressed like this?" the statement read. "This is NOT funny. This is heartbreaking. Students deserve better."
Middleton, who called the costumes “clearly insensitive and inappropriate” on Friday, said he was informed of the photos by a concerned parent.
Along with the school district's Facebook page, the administration section of Heights Elementary's website has also been made unavailable, but a popup window contains the statement Middleton released over the weekend, along with one from the school board.
"This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District," the school board's statement said. "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 to assure appropriate disciplinary action is taken.
“We care about each of our students, their education, and their safety. 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.”