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School district settles claim of ongoing racism at Alta High

Published January 26, 2013 4:04 pm

Alta High • Former student said he was abused by teammates, others.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • A former Alta High School student has received $100,000 to settle a claim that fellow students and football teammates racially abused him, and that the school's football coaches and administrators failed to take action to stop the abuse.

According to documents obtained Friday, Anthony Armstrong, a biracial student at Alta from 2009 to 2011, alleges he suffered prolonged racial abuse from students and teammates. Specifically, the documents allege Armstrong was called racial slurs, and at one point was threatened with a noose made out of athletic tape.

The allegations came to light in 2011 after an unrelated event in which an Alta student donned what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan hood and made a pro-Nazi remark at a school spirit assembly. The incident, which was recorded and was later put on a student's blog, made national headlines. An investigation followed, and the district said it first learned of Armstrong's complaints then.

"We moved swiftly and took appropriate action as soon as the allegations were brought to our attention," Canyons spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer-Cook said.

A notice of claim was filed with the district in 2011, and Canyons settled the issue through its insurer, the Utah Division of Risk Management, in late December 2012.

Armstrong and his attorneys claim the student was subjected to years of abuse by students and teammates, some of whom were members of a white supremacist gang called Rawhide.

"Don't you love the campus here at Alta?" one teammate allegedly asked him in September 2009. "Isn't it funny that 30 years ago you would be hanging from one of these trees?"

Another time, on a bus ride home from a football game, Armstrong claims a teammate threatened him, saying, "I'm going to rope you, boy!" while dangling a noose made from athletic tape in front of Armstrong.

According to the documents, Armstrong and his family told coaches and administrators about the problems but their concerns were ignored.

On Feb. 22, 2010, according to Armstrong's claim, one student fought a black student while members of the Rawhide gang watched. With the black student on the ground, the white student allegedly kicked him in the head, causing a seizure, and yelled, "That's how we do it in the South, [slur]!" The fight was allegedly recorded and sent to Armstrong.

Armstrong and his mother met with then-Alta administrators Mont Widerburg and Mark Montague four days after the fight. Widerburg said he had seen the video but saw no reason to discuss it further, according to the claim. Armstrong said the principal and assistant principal "scoffed" at assertions of racial abuse. They promised to "keep an eye on [one student] but stated that they felt he was 'one bad egg and that there wasn't really a problem,' " according to the claim.

Then-Alta football coach Les Hamilton allegedly told his player to "forget the past" and "suck it up and be a man," according to Armstrong's claim.

Hamilton, however, said that he and his staff took swift action, including suspending the player who allegedly made the noose for two games, after Armstrong told him about the incident.

"When it was brought to my attention by Anthony and his mother, they told me what had occurred on the bus," Hamilton said. "I quickly took the individual that was being accused of this and told them if there was anything else they'd be dismissed from the team. We then held a team meeting [and I told players] that racial slurs in any event and any time would result in dismissal from the team. Then it was never brought to my attention again."

The Canyons' Office of Civil Rights and Accommodations began investigating Alta after a student donned what resembled a Ku Klux Klan hood during the March 2011 assembly.

"Our examination of the events at the school that day has uncovered evidence of other very serious incidents that warrant immediate and thorough attention, including appropriate administrative action pending the results of the investigation," Canyons Superintendent David Doty and Board President Tracy Cowdell said in a statement at the time.

Following the assembly, Widerberg and Montague were placed on administrative leave. Widerberg retired shortly thereafter. Montague, who declined to comment for this story, became the vice principal at Butler Middle School and resigned from the district in January 2012 after settling an agreement with Canyons.

As part of that settlement, he received $55,000, and a letter of reprimand was removed from his file.

Widerburg declined to comment on the case other than to point to Montague's grievance.

"This is what it was about," he said. "And he won."

Since March 2011, Canyons has taken a number of steps in dealing with issues of racism, Toomer-Cook said. Doty and other district administrators met with every student at Alta following the 2011 assembly. A district attorney met one on one with each employee in the district to discuss anti-discrimination policies.

"We're not a flash in the pan," Toomer-Cook said. "We want to keep this in front of people. We want you to know that you can report and you don't have to be afraid. ... It is our highest priority to ensure an educational environment that is welcoming and safe for all students."

Alta's new principal, Fidel Montero, called it "an improved situation" at the school.

"When I first got here, the environment was really tense, and it was a tough time on a lot of students," he said. "They felt the rest of the state was judging them based on what was being reported on the news. But we have a ton of good kids who do the right thing every day, who come to school prepared, who have ambitious goals to go to college. And those kids got a bad rap because of the behavior of a couple of kids."

Armstrong's attorney, Andrew Morse, declined to discuss specifics of the claim but said he was pleased with the settlement and lauded the school district for adopting new policies in the wake of its investigation.

"Part of the discussion was how the district was going to fix things," he said. "That was the core of our settlement. The district is now going to adopt new policies ... so that the things that happened to Anthony Armstrong do not happen to another kid."

afalk@sltrib.comTwitter: @aaronfalk