In 2018 teachers from the Middleton School District dressed as the border wall, presented the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ and coordinated with another group of teachers dressed as Mexican immigrants, photos of both these costume groups were posted to the district Facebook page; later the superintendent retracted the photos and replaced them with a recorded apology.
The situation described by Maxouris and Gray (2018) was initially managed well; however based on the information provided there were many missed opportunities for school improvement and community relations.
While political speech is typically protected, this case may be viewed through the lens of student safety and wellbeing. The school – and certainly the superintendent – has a duty first to the students and their wellbeing. Given that this incident occurred in 2018, during the Trump administration, this political topic of imigration control and reform was certainly present in the everyday lives of students, even elementary students. Given that the Middleton School district is composed of 4,000 students (About Us/About MSD, 2020) and according to Idaho Ed Trends (as cited in Maxouris and Gray, 2018), almost 13% of the school’s population is Hispanic.
The teachers dressed in a way that some parents “described as racist,” Superintendent Josh Middleton described the costumes as “clearly insensitive and inappropriate” and an immigrant rights advocate Beth Almanza commented that the photos were “extremely disheartening” and “heartbreaking” (Maxouris and Gray, 2018). This alone identities the controversy within the community and the potential harm to students.
Given that there was potential harm to students, the retraction of the posts on Facebook, with the addition of an apology was a good first step in managing the incident. The Middleton School District states that it has a “goal to provide quality education… in an atmosphere safe for growing and learning” (About Us/About MSD, 2020). The retraction satisfies this portion of their mission. However, they also state that the learning should be completed “through the collaborative efforts of our staff, students, parents and community” (About Us/About MSD, 2020).
The post from the Superintendent Middleton, creates what Grunning (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 12) would call two-way asymmetrical communication. It is not collaborative. It does not create a meaningful dialogue between the stakeholders in the school community. The superintendent’s post creates a message intended to persuade the public that the removal of the content was a reasonable response. Members of the Facebook page would be able to reply to the post and comment, though this function in social-media would fall short of symmetrical communication; it is unlikely that “mutual understanding,” as described by Grunning, (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p.12) would emerge from this lone response.
This response falls short of the full force that public relations can have. The National School Public Relations Association (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 14) defines Educational PR as “a planned and systematic two-way process of communications between an educational organization and its internal and external publics designed to build morale, goodwill, understanding, and support for that organization.” It would be interesting to follow up on the impact that this incident had in the community or if the superintendent was able to spark conversation or further actions in the community that did promote understanding and support for the organization.
Because the response does not create dialogue or meaningful two-way communication, the morale and goodwill that could have come from this difficult incident is missed.
Considering different actions and approaches to only the Public Relations components of the response, the school could have held a community forum to discuss the issue, integrated community voices into the classroom to discuss immigration reform, and discussed the issue directly with the teachers. However, given the bandwidth of working time and attention, this response from Superintendent to internally review and publicly apologize may be all the time that was actually available.
About Us / About MSD. (2020). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.msd134.org/domain/32
Kowalski, T. J. (2011). Public relations in schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Maxouris, C. & Gray, M. (2018). Elementary School Teachers in Idaho Dressed Up As a MAGA Border Wall for Halloween. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/02/us/idaho-teachers-border-costume-trnd/index.html