District turns photo incident into ‘teachable moment’

When a photo of two State College Area High School students wearing shirts that some considered discriminatory went viral, the district decided to use it as a “teachable moment.”

The incident created attention last week when a photo was posted online of two State High male students who were wearing homemade matching T-shirts with the N-word on them.

“It was a play on (Dr. Seuss’) Thing 1 and Thing 2,” said district spokesman Chris Rosenblum.

Rosenblum said since the incident happened off school grounds, the district’s hands were tied in terms of disciplinary matters — though Student Resource Officer Terry Stec spoke with the teens involved.

“I think the school is looking at it as a teachable moment,” Rosenblum said.

On Wednesday, a student “race relations” forum was held for anyone in the school who wanted to participate.

Interim Principal Curtis Johnson said he provided the platform for clubs like the Diversity group and Student Council to facilitate for the student body.

“Peer-to-peer interaction always works better, because they just look at us like parents,” Johnson said with a laugh. “An email was sent to the whole school for anyone who wanted to join the forum.”

The mission was for students to come up with ideas to prevent similar issues.

“I don’t think students will tolerate this kind of thing,” Johnson said.

State High students were unavailable to comment, but junior Student Council President Gillian Warner released a statement that said she hopes her peers won’t be bystanders if they witness the kind of behavior that has the potential to hurt others.

“We cannot and will not accept this type of behavior by State High students, whether on campus or off campus,” she said. “Our school is better than this, and as students, it is our duty to make this school the best it can be, and we can do that by appreciating individual differences and what each person can bring to our community, no matter his or her background.”

Rosenblum said the forum was not open to the public, which prevented the CDT from attending. Johnson, however, sat down with a reporter Wednesday to discuss the forum, and school programs and policies.

“We have a dress code, harassment policy, and work with the SRO and parents,” Johnson said. “If these rules are violated at school, we take matters into our hands based on discipline based on the severity of the case.”

The district cannot get involved in off-campus issues unless they cause “substantial disruption in school,” Johnson said.

But Johnson, who is black, wouldn’t call the teens in the photo incident “bullies” or “prejudice.”

“I’d never say that,” Johnson said. “It was just absentmindedness. I think they ask, ‘why can some people say the N-word, while others can’t?’ Either way it’s not right for anyone to say.”

The school has numerous student groups based on minorities including a Diversity group, Multicultural club, and Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender group.

“That’s why we can hold forums and create clubs for minorities,” Johnson said. “It’s is our way of responding to student concerns. … In the 13 years I’ve been here, I have seen an improvement.”

Johnson was also instrumental in developing an ethnic intimidation procedure a few years ago.

Johnson said African American ethnicity makes up 1 percent of the student population at State High, while 3 percent are Asian. The largest cultural minority, Johnson said, is the Russian population.