Utah high school promotes fundraising ‘jail event’ with image of a Black boy behind bars

Advocates say the social media post should have been vetted and was insensitive to students of color.

(Screenshot) Pictured is an ad that Summit Academy High School in Bluffdale ran for a fundraising 'jail event' that has caused concerns over racism.

A Utah charter school invited its students to send their classmates to “lunch jail” as part of a fundraising event — and then promoted the campaign with an image of a Black child in an orange jumpsuit behind bars.

Advocates are demanding to know how the ad for social media was approved, calling it insensitive and derogatory. And they say they’re concerned about the impact of it on students of color.

“That’s who they felt deserved to be behind bars, seriously?” said Rae Duckworth, leader of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter. “That’s how they see us? This is ugly. It’s conditioning, and it’s terrible.”

The post came from Summit Academy High School in Bluffdale. It was put on Instagram under the account @sahsbears, which has about 1,000 followers, in early November and then taken down after some critics reported their concerns.

A screenshot of the post was shared with The Salt Lake Tribune by a staff member at the school, and its use was further confirmed by a former staff member who also saw it. Both said they were concerned by the depiction.

Michael Clark, the director of the high school, also said the image was “unfortunate.”

“In no way did we want anyone to feel hurt by that,” he said Wednesday. “But I think we’ve taken good steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Going forward, the principal of Summit Academy will be the only one to post to social media, he added.

The charter school sits in a predominantly white part of Utah, and the student body there is 76% white, according to fall enrollment data from the Utah Board of Education. Of its 523 students, 13 students are Black.

The controversial post was for a fundraising event where students could pay $5 to put a classmate in what they called “lunch jail,” held every Wednesday in November. That consisted of a set of tables in the cafeteria surrounded by streamers meant to look like bars, Clark said. Students could also pay $7 to bail themselves or a friend out, according to the post.

The director noted that the school had held the event for several years. This year, the money raised — $600 — went to lymphoma research.

The image on social media has a cafeteria in the background and then a cartoon image of a Black boy clinging to metal jail bars under the large words “LUNCH JAIL!”

Duckworth said the philanthropic goal of the event doesn’t mean the school or others should overlook the racism of the posting; she doesn’t see that as an excuse. She believes the issue is that the school posted the picture and felt it was an acceptable idea that a Black child would naturally be in jail.

“It’s disgusting. What if a boy in the school looks like a boy on the poster? What does that say to him?” Duckworth asked. “It’s just so harmful. And I fear it encourages students to pay to put only their classmates of color in jail.”

She also said the idea of normalizing jail with an event like this is concerning.

Duckworth said her high school, when she was growing up, held similar events — including caging students in with barn animals, including a llama. She believes that crosses a line with a student’s autonomy, especially when they haven’t done anything wrong or may not be able to afford to get out.

Clark said that no one was forced to stay in the makeshift jail, and students who were placed there could leave at any time. Additionally, none of the students were kept from eating lunch.

“It’s just a fun activity,” Clark said.

The post for the event got 52 “likes” before it was taken down about two hours later, Clark said. A new one was put up without an image and just text. It said the event is “not an actual jail” and used the hashtag “#nooffense.”

Clark said a student made the image used in the post. He said it was the second image that came up on a Google search. The first was an empty jail cell. “It was unfortunate that student used that particular image,” he added.

A teacher was then tasked with putting it on Instagram. Clark said that teacher “didn’t think of any racial implications with it.”

“But it was certainly something that was insensitive, and the teacher should have caught it,” he noted.

The school, he said, took it down within two hours.

Michelle Love-Day, a member of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition and founder of RISE Academy, which focuses on Black students learning Black history, said she’s glad to see that response. But she also questions why the image was used and approved in the first place.

“Maybe they should’ve just used the Monopoly board jail,” she said. “It didn’t have to include a person.”

Love-Day said: “No one wants to attend school when this is who the school sees as consistently behind bars.”

And it can be stressful, she said, for students to feel like they have to try to combat that narrative, to feel like they have to convince staff they’re not a criminal. Already, Black students are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers for similar school infractions, multiple national studies have shown.

Love-Day noted that the issue with the post comes as the nation has been divided over the debate with critical race theory, with some conservative parents in Utah pushing for limits on how race is talked about in the classroom. But things like this, she said, happen when there’s not an understanding of bias and history.

And these issues continue to pop up in the state.

For instance, a learning center came under fire earlier this year for having packets that claimed “most slaves were generally treated kindly.” Another school in Utah — Centennial Middle School in Provo — randomly assigned students to be slaves and slave masters for a project about the Civil War.

And Davis School District also was investigated and chastised by the U.S. Department of Justice for mishandling hundreds of reports of racism.

“Hopefully moving forward, these schools have multiple perspectives and diverse opinions for these fundraisers and really any events,” Love-Day said.

Duckworth added that it’s crucial for students of color to see themselves in positive positions. She said at her daughter’s school there’s a board that says: “What do you want to be?” On it are images of all different types of careers. Multiple races and ethnicities are represented.

“The nurse looks just like me,” Duckworth said. “And the scientist looks like my daughter.”