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Canyons to work with feds on a community dialogue on racism

Published April 6, 2011 2:21 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Cottonwood Heights • In the midst of an investigation into multiple "serious incidents" of racism at Alta High School, Canyons School District is getting a helping hand from the federal government.

Canyons still has not announced a time line for wrapping up its investigation, which began in March after an Alta junior wore what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan hood during the school's spirit bowl. Nor has the district disclosed details of other cases of alleged racism uncovered at the school.

But on Tuesday, the Canyons Board of Education invited Rosa Salamanca, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice, to work with the district to organize a community dialogue on race and discrimination. Salamanca reached out to Canyons Superintendent David Doty last week after she read about the district's troubles.

"Our community dialogues are very helpful," Salamanca told the board in a meeting at Brighton High School. "Often times in communities, if there is racial tension, sometimes it is occurring in a way that not everyone is able to see."

Since Canyons placed the principal and an assistant principal on paid leave last week pending the results of an investigation into newly revealed incidents of racism, the district has taken flak both from those who think the district's reaction is overblown and from those who think school officials have not done enough.

"I'm disappointed the way the district has handled this," Alta parent Dan Corbett told the board during a public comment period. "If there's more details [about other racist incidents], I'd like to know. Because right now, I just see the media blowing it up. It's maligning Alta and it's putting a negativity on all the students undeservedly."

Heather Gist, a mother of a biracial student at Hillcrest High, said she appreciated Canyons "quickly" stepping in at Alta High and speaking with students there about discrimination.

Her husband, Eddie Gist, who is black, said in an interview that the KKK-related incident at Alta opened the door for his son to speak to his parents about being called a racial slur by a classmate. The slurs have persisted despite Gist's son telling his peer to cut it out.

"This was news to us," said Gist, who noted he witnessed KKK activities as a child growing up in North Carolina. "It was one of those things that gave us an opportunity to really talk about [racism]."

Gist said he would like to see any dialogue organized by Canyons and the Department of Justice be held districtwide. Racial tensions are not limited to Alta High, he said.

"With all these kids who are black or [multiracial], they get this every day. And they have no way to really talk to people or let it out because they know administration doesn't do anything about it," Gist said. "We can't continue to let these things be condoned."

Canyons Superintendent David Doty said the district, possibly in collaboration with the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, plans to develop ongoing curriculum for students about racial tensions and training for faculty and staff on how to handle incidents of discrimination.

"Knowing what I know [about the racism investigation]," Canyons Board President Tracy Cowdell said, "I can assure everyone here that we are not overreacting to this situation."

rwinters@sltrib.com