S. Ind. school to apologize for racist costumes

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 1:30 p.m. CDT

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NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) — Administrators at a southern Indiana school district planned to apologize Monday for costumes students at a predominantly white middle school wore to a basketball game, sparking allegations of racism.

Three New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. officials told members of the NAACP's New Albany branch that they intend to write a letter of apology to Parkview Middle School over the costumes worn by Highland Hill Middle School students.

A handful of Highland Hills students wore black masks — one with the face of a gorilla and another featuring President Barack Obama's likeness — to a Feb. 7 eighth-grade basketball game between the schools. Highland Hills students were encouraged to dress for the home game in all black — a so-called "blackout" — to show their school spirit. Students were asked to wear other colors at earlier games.

But some parents questioned if racism was involved considering the masks that were worn during the game against Parkview — a Jeffersonville school with several black students and basketball players.

Lisa Barnett, whose son played on Parkview's team that night, said she thought the district has downplayed the issue in media coverage of the incident by focusing on the three students. She said the district appeared not to understand the seriousness of the situation.

"There were more than three masks. It seemed like a whole cheering section right in back of our basketball team that either had on black nylon masks, they had on Obama masks and a bunch of gorillas and monkeys," Barnett told the News and Tribune. "I couldn't focus on the game because of these masks behind our boys."

Bill Briscoe, New Albany-Floyd County's assistant superintendent, said he understands why the district might have been viewed as insensitive. He said he wants to assure the community that the district does understand the gravity of the incident at the game, which Highland Hills won 34-29.

"What happened was wrong, it was offensive and we know it was hurtful to people," Briscoe said. "We hope that the three kids and their parents learned from this. This is a teaching situation."

After Monday's meeting, NAACP branch President Nicole Yates said she thought most members of the NAACP group felt school administrators were taking the appropriate steps.

"I do believe most people were satisfied with what they heard," Yates said.

But she also said she's troubled by the incident because some of the mask images have long been recognized as racial insults to blacks.

"It is no secret that it has been in the past that African Americans are referred to as gorillas or anything, monkeys and what have you," Yates said. "And so it was offensive and it was offensive to a lot of people, a lot of parents."

Highland Hills principal Steve Griffin told the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., that he followed up by meeting with three students and by contacting their parents. He also called a Parkview assistant principal and a district superintendent to apologize for the incident.

When he spoke to the students, he said, they seemed shocked to learn their masks had offended others.

"The take I got was more ignorance," Griffin said Monday.

He said the school is working to "heighten our cultural awareness" and part of that will include arranging for Highland's four counselors to conduct diversity awareness sessions with students in each grade, five through eight.

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