MCPS addresses diversity and inclusion after racist images circulate in community

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Posted at 1:18 PM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 15:19:03-04

MISSOULA — If you’re tied to Missoula County Public Schools, you may have received an email last week regarding racist images circulating the web -- the photos appeared to be high school students in the Missoula community.

After an investigation, the district determined that the students in the photos had no affiliation with our area schools, but that left us wondering, what IS the protocol when something like this happens.

“Kids really need to feel comfortable and included before they can learn,” MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson told MTN News Thursday afternoon.

Comfort and inclusion -- seems simple enough to offer the students of our public schools, but with the rise in violence and controversy in a digital age, kids, nowadays, see the country’s unrest panning out right at their fingertips, hindering their ability to focus on school.

“A good example is when we saw the insurrection happen at the Capitol Building, you know, although that really had no direct ties to our students or our schools, we still had quite a few students that wanted to talk about it and were worried about it and concerned about it,” said Watson.

Closer to home, racist images surfaced online last week. The photos appeared to be high school students in the Missoula community. After completing an investigation, MCPS administrators determined that the students in the controversial photos had no affiliation with the school district.

Superintendent Watson and a few area schools still felt the need to address the photos in statements sent to MCPS students and families.

“We send out messages because things blow up very quickly on social media, and sometimes, we send out messages to dispel rumors to calm fears, those sorts of things, but we also send out messages as a show of support for those students that may have been offended by the social media, even though it didn't come from us or any of our students.”

When a controversial social media post is tied to the district or its students, taking disciplinary action can be challenging, according to Watson.

“There are a lot of legal issues that come in with that, and quite honestly, we consult our attorney frequently, especially when it deals with social media, because some of that is within our jurisdiction and some of it is not.”

Beyond discipline, Watson says restorative justice practices are just as, if not more, important.

“I think what was really interesting about some of the most recent social issues that have come up, is a lot of students are understanding it's more than just a disciplinary consequence...they also would like to see some education on the other side of that, which is great because that's what we do best, right? We're educators and we would never issue a disciplinary consequence without making sure there was also an educational piece to that, that’s just at the heart of what we do.”

MCPS is working to train all 700 teachers in a diversity, equity, and inclusion program led by Empower Montana and the Montana Racial Equity Project. By Thursday night, Watson says 65 of their teachers will have been fully trained in the program.