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Students in KKK costumes spark controversy at Las Vegas Academy

Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 | 10:30 p.m.

Map of Las Vegas Academy

Las Vegas Academy

315 S. 7Th St., Las Vegas

A class presentation involving students dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes has one local high school embroiled in controversy.

The incident took place Jan. 9 at Las Vegas Academy, a performing arts magnet school. A class assignment had students showcase their knowledge of U.S. history by either writing a research paper, creating an art or dance piece or performing a first-person narrative.

Two juniors — with their social studies teacher's approval — decided to dress in KKK costumes for their class presentation. One of the students wore the white robes and hooded mask outside of the class, allegedly against the teacher's guidelines.

A photograph of that student was taken and posted on social media. The photograph — which quickly spread throughout the school community — sparked several questions and complaints.

Principal Scott Walker issued a letter to parents on Jan. 11, calling the incident "unfortunate" and "inappropriate." He said the academy was reviewing its "internal procedures" and will talk with staff about its lessons.

“While the presentation was designed to highlight the atrocities committed by the Klan, and there was no intention to harm or offend on the part of the students, it was in poor judgment and inappropriate for students to go to such lengths to convey their message,” Walker said in his message.

“I am deeply saddened that LVA, which prides itself on providing a supportive learning environment for all, was the site of any action that could cause sadness and anger for our school family," Walker continued. "We are deeply sorry for this offensive incident and appreciate your support and cooperation as we use these events as teachable moments about cultural and historical understanding."

Schools across the country have received national attention over controversial lessons and topics involving race in recent years. These incidents include college students dressing up in blackface for Halloween and the banning of Native American mascots in collegiate athletics.

However, lessons on the Civil War and the civil rights movement have been among the most sensitive topics in the classroom nationally.

In April 2011, a fourth-grade teacher at a Norfolk, Va., elementary school held a mock slave auction during her class as part of a lesson on the Civil War. The teacher had white students in her class take turns "buying" black students.

The month prior, an elementary school teacher near Columbus, Ohio, carried out a similar exercise where white students were able to examine their black peers to see if they were worth "buying."

Locally, Las Vegas Academy came under public scrutiny last year for allowing its theater students to say the "N-word" during a theater production of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The Las Vegas Academy teacher who allowed students to wear KKK costumes, also permitted students to dress up as Adolf Hitler in other class assignments.

In an effort to curb racial controversies in the classroom, the Clark County School District conducts several diversity trainings throughout the year, mostly after school and on weekends. Since August 2012, more than 6,500 teachers have participated in the voluntary trainings, which educates teachers on how to teach in a culturally sensitive manner.

Greta Peay, director of the district's equity and diversity department, said teachers must prepare carefully before and after a potentially controversial lesson to ensure the school community doesn't misunderstand its purpose and intent.

Peay said she understood that the purpose of the controversial lessons was to have students better empathize with the victims during the Jim Crow era and the Holocaust. However, Peay said she would not personally recommend that teachers allow their students to dress up as controversial historical characters.

"I would not do this activity with K-12 students," she said. "That's not to take anything away from this teacher. But teachers need to be careful, and really know the culture and climate of the school and have a good grip on how the school will react."

Amanda Fulkerson, chief communications officer for the district, said there was no disciplining of the teacher, only a reminder of the district's policy. She did not name the teacher, because the incident is considered a personnel issue.

"The student in this case has been counseled and the teacher has been reminded of the policy in place to notify the principal of potentially controversial lessons," Fulkerson said in a statement. "We expect the attention to this event will remind all teachers the policy exists only to protect them."

Although no formal disciplinary actions were taken, that didn't keep more than a dozen students, parents and teachers from speaking out in support of the teacher at Thursday's Clark County School Board meeting.

Students said the teacher was an excellent, caring educator who tries his best to make history come alive for the students at the performing arts school. They dispelled false rumors about the teacher, and argued in favor of the unique history lesson.

"The infamous KKK is discussed for several pages in the school's history textbook, it is in the curriculum, and it is a big part of the history of this nation … (one) that cannot be changed," said Karina Foster, a Las Vegas Academy junior in one of the teacher's classes. "As a U.S. history instructor, this teacher was simply doing his job. He had no intent to offend or disturb the public."

Las Vegas Academy senior Cody Cris — a student aide in the teacher's class — said if blame is to be leveled, it shouldn't be toward his teacher.

"A student made an unfortunate decision (to wear his KKK costume outside of class) and the teacher should not be held responsible for it," he said.

Caolinn Mejza, a Las Vegas Academy senior and editor of the student newspaper, said a lot of students thought the incident was a big misunderstanding. Mejza, who isn't a student in any of the teacher's classes, said the incident caused a buzz around campus.

"It's not reflective at all of our school environment," which she described as inclusive, accepting and tolerant. "This is so uncharacteristic of our school."

Black community leaders attending the School Board meeting Thursday seemed to agree with the students, but said the incident serves as a learning opportunity for teachers and students.

Pastor Raymond Giddens of the United Baptist Church — which used to be a predominantly black church — said the student who wore the KKK costume outside of class was the one ultimately at fault for the controversy, not the teacher.

However, Giddens argued "the teacher, based on something this sensitive, should've taken care not to let the student take it outside of the classroom."

UNLV professor emeritus Esther Langston, with Delta Sigma Theta — a black sorority and educational organization — said she supported the teacher. It's within a teacher's "academic freedom" to educate students in a creative fashion, she said.

Clark County School Board member Linda Young — the only black and minority School Board member — echoed the students' support of the teacher.

Young — who represents Las Vegas Academy — said many teachers at the school think creatively to bring difficult subjects to life. She added that she didn't receive any complaints from the public about the incident.

"This teacher has my support," she said. "I truly do believe the teacher meant no harm."

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