MIDDLETON — Photos of Middleton elementary school teachers dressed as ethnic and national stereotypes drew an international and bipartisan ire that the school and community are still hoping to shake two weeks later.
A social media post showing educators clad in sombreros and fake mustaches, along with a cooperative costume representing President Trump's border wall, produced a hasty apology from school officials — also made on social media. The apology and the decision to place those involved on administrative leave invited new condemnation.
“I’m called a liberal snowflake, I’m called a racist jerk," superintendent Josh Middleton said during a conversation with the Idaho Press. "Yet the context of Middleton School District is we have excellent educators. We want those teachers working with our kids and just moving on from this event — but obviously learning from it, as well.”
Within days of placing the 14 staff members on administrative leave, all involved, except for principal Kim Atkinson, were reinstated and back on the job.
While quick with an apology, the district was slow on details following the event. The Idaho Press spoke with superintendent Middleton about some of the rumors surrounding the photos, clearing up questions about claims the costumes weren't worn in class and were intended as a teaching exercise.
Just as dueling forms of criticism swamped the district office, rival refrains bubbled up from the community asking critics to "get over it" or declaring "we're better than this." Conversations with the Hispanic community and a historical audit of the area, however, suggest a deeper legacy of racial fault lines in Canyon County.
Clearing up rumors
As criticism has poured in from across the nation, local discourse has centered on previously unresolved questions about what prompted the photos and how they were posted.
The district is keeping much of the investigation — which ended Wednesday, Nov. 7 — under wraps, citing due process for personnel issues. That includes the fate of Middleton Heights Principal Kim Atkinson, who is the only staff member not to return to class last week. According to Atkinson's LinkedIn profile, she has been the principal of Middleton Heights Elementary for more than five years. Before that, she worked in the Meridian School District for 18 years.
Superintendent Middleton said the school's weeklong team-building activity was supposed to focus on acts of kindness. Teachers were divided into teams named after different countries, although the activities did not require them to be dressed as their country, Middleton said. The photos were taken during the after-school activity on Halloween, but Middleton said some teachers did wear their costumes in class that day. No other school participated in the activity, and Middleton said he was not under the impression that the point of the activity was about studying other cultures.
In one photo, staff in patriotic attire stood behind an apparent border wall with the words “Make America Great Again," while the other featured staff in sombreros and mustaches and holding maracas.
Angry district parents and social media commenters claimed the district held some responsibility for posting the photos, and the principal and staff were convenient "scapegoats" for the administration. Speaking broadly on the school district's previous policy on posting to social media, superintendent Middleton said the district IT staffer in charge of posting isn't empowered to make content decisions. Instead, the staff member just posts what school leaders like Middleton or individual principals request.
Ultimately, Middleton told the Idaho Press that while there was no place and no excuse for the staff's actions, the investigation found "no hate in the heart of these teachers."
"There's insensitivity there, but no malicious intent," Middleton told the Idaho Press. "They love their students and they love what they do."
Community reactions diverge
As people around the world directed self-righteous indignation toward Middleton — the story was picked up by major outlets in multiple languages — reactions within the community and the Treasure Valley differed dramatically. Some took no issue with the photos. For others, the photos and rush to defend the teachers exposed racial divisions they didn’t know or had overlooked in the Treasure Valley. For many in Canyon County's Latino community, the photos told the world what they’d known all along.
“Some of us have been here all our life,” wrote Spanish radio host and Nampa resident Ricardo Quilantán on his Facebook page. “Enough is enough.”
Middleton doesn’t have that many Latinos. It’s a quiet farming town of roughly 7,500 people that’s slowly growing into a bedroom community for Boise. But Middleton itself is right on the edge of agricultural Canyon County, which has the largest Hispanic population in Idaho. Generational residents of Canyon County say part of the pain voiced by the Latino community comes from systemic discrimination and prejudice. Decades ago, the county had a lot more farms and a lot more migrant labor camps. Most of the labor camps are gone, or turned into rural housing authorities. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the migrant farmers stayed, and many saw similarities in the discrimination they faced.
Patricia Melchor, a clinical assistant in Caldwell, has two grandchildren in the Middleton School District. Melchor, 56, grew up in Ontario, just over the Oregon border, and said she and her classmates weren't allowed to speak Spanish, even at recess. She recalls one teacher slapping her friend, saying they should "go back where they came from" if they were going to speak Spanish. Melchor was born in Idaho.
"This was my childhood," Melchor said. "It shouldn’t be my grandchildren’s."
Juan Saldaña from the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs said they were contacted by a number of concerned Latino families, from those wanting to submit letters of concern to the Middleton School District, to parents with preschool-aged children wondering about enrolling their children in another district.
“It is in their (the educators') guidebook that they shouldn’t be partisan or political," Saldaña said. "They should have done better. I do believe there should be consequences."
Debate over this issue, education experts and residents say, reflects the school system's chronic failures educating minority students.
Claudia Peralta, a Boise State professor in the department of Language, Literacy and Culture who works with rural Idaho teachers in bilingual and bicultural education, was "offended" but not surprised by the photos.
“I think that with (Canyon County's) record with the Latino community, there is a lack of understanding and ignorance of who the Latino people are in the community, what they have contributed and how long Latinos have been in the community," Peralta said.
Peralta was skeptical of claims the costumes were meant to teach cultural sensitivity.
“I think that if you wanted to talk about stereotypes or racism, this is not the way to address this," Peralta said. "There are many different ways to talk about racism or stereotypes. Getting dressed up as a stereotype of Latinos, or Mexicans ... I don’t agree with it.”
As of 2017, 9.5 percent of Middleton’s population is Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The Middleton School District also has a migrant education program, which Idaho students qualify for if they’ve moved in the last three years and their family works in agriculture.
Irma Morin, the executive director of the Community Council of Idaho, is especially worried about the impact of the photos on migrant families in Canyon County. She said it's quite clear what was wrong with teachers dressed in sombreros labelled "MEXICAN" or as President Trump's long-desired border wall with a "Make America Great Again" slogan.
"We work very hard to educate our parents to become their children's number one advocates, to know that going to schools and meeting the teachers is very important," Morin said. "This makes it a little more difficult for them, to have that trust. Especially if they know there are educators there that feel that way — that there should be a wall."
Morin said they've received reports of migrant and Latino children in Idaho being bullied by other kids about the border wall, or being told to go back to Mexico. She's never heard of local educators expressing similar views, until now.
“It’s very disturbing that an educator would not think twice about the impact,” Morin said.
Peralta from Boise State said what happened in Middleton is indicative of a common problem across rural Idaho and much of the United States. Idaho doesn't require teachers to be certified to work with English language learners, Peralta said, and that means Idaho is "severely lacking" teachers who are prepared to work with Idaho's growing Hispanic population.
“In this country, we need to acknowledge that 80 percent of the teachers are white and monolingual, and more than 40 percent of youngsters are children of color," Peralta said. “There is a huge gap. We need to understand that not all the teachers are going to be representatives of the cultures that exist in the classroom, but teachers need to feel comfortable teaching all students."
Parents voice support for teachers
Gerardo and Alma Ayala, who have a 6-year-old at Middleton Heights Elementary, are hoping things will go back to normal for the betterment of their child. In their opinion, the reaction to the photos was exacerbated by media attention.
“They went overboard by putting up the wall. That’s it,” Gerardo Ayala said. “We all saw the wall and the phrase and I think they went overboard with that. But, it wasn’t meant to do that.”
Alma said their child didn’t really know what was going on — she was too young. On Nov. 6, before the district announced the teachers were being reinstated, they said they just wanted their kid's teachers back.
“Our kids have been at this school and we haven’t seen that they are racist. We like the teachers, we love them,” Gerardo Ayala said. “And there was a petition that they want them out? I don’t believe it. I think it was just a mistake they made. I think they should put them back in the school and teach our kids. They do a pretty good job.”
Other Latino parents in Middleton and Canyon County declined to an interview with the Idaho Press, citing a fear of reprisals and threats.
The Idaho Press spoke to several other residents on Election Day as they left Middleton Heights Elementary, which was a Canyon County polling place. While some residents said it may have been unwise to post the photos, no one thought the teachers should be punished for their actions.
"I feel like everyone just needs to get over themselves, grow up and not be so sensitive," said Roberta Stewart of Middleton. "I don't think it was wise in today's climate to do that, because everyone is so sensitive. But the 'PC,' crybaby stuff is just embarrassing. I support (the teachers) but would say next time — don't take pictures! And probably don't do it, it's insensitive."
Others are more demonstrative in their calls for the status quo. They don't think the school district should be apologizing for anything — besides creating "scapegoats" of the Middleton Heights staff and principal, that is.
"This is our school district," Middleton parent Brenda Pickrel told the school board in a prepared statement on Monday. "We live here — not the rest of the world. The board and administration have torn our little town apart. You listened more to outside voices than to our own community."