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**EDITORIAL** Waynesville isn’t Ferguson; we must not act that way

WAYNESVILLE, Mo. (Oct. 26, 2015) — Following a weekend of social media uproar, it’s likely most people who pay attention to Waynesville sports, and also many who live in Camdenton, know at least something about what happened Friday at the Waynesville-Camdenton football game. Unfortunately, what’s known is not the score, or how the teams played on the field, but what it’s claimed was done by some of the fans in the stands.

Many facts are in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that a young woman who is a member of the Waynesville High School band, and whose mother happens to be from an ethnic minority group, wrote a letter to the Camdenton High School principal objecting to the conduct of a number of Camdenton fans. The key sentence is this: “Many students (and adults) representing your school chose this time to scream rude comments, obscenities, and racial slurs.” That student posted her letter on Facebook; it was then reposted Saturday morning by a Waynesville school board member who has been in office only since April. Within hours, that student’s letter attracted hundreds of shares and thousands of readers. By Saturday afternoon, three newspapers had posted online articles about the controversy and copies had been forwarded by numerous angry parents to two Springfield television stations. The Waynesville school superintendent, who previously worked at Camdenton, has pledged an investigation; the Waynesville High School principal plans to meet with band members today.

It must be said, and said right from the start, that while the actions of a few people can give an entire community a black eye, those few people do not necessarily represent everyone in their town. The Camdenton newspaper acted quickly to publicize this, the Camdenton superintendent plans to investigate, and it’s quite likely many in Camdenton are just as angry about racial bigotry as any of the upset Waynesville students and parents.

What’s different about this incident is that a few years ago, letters like those sent by this student might have been ignored or quietly “received for information” at a school board meeting. While students who heard the slurs would have been angry, and some parents would have defended their sons and daughters, the controversy might well have gone away after a few weeks.

Social media is a major part of why that didn’t happen this time. The student’s letter was shared by hundreds of people and read by thousands during the weekend. School officials, to their credit, acted rapidly and plan to investigate.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the original letter-writer, Rachel Slabaugh, has come under attack. Some have said she shouldn’t have taken it upon herself to write a principal of another school district and should have quietly addressed her concern to the Waynesville band director. Some have said they didn’t see or hear the things she said she heard and saw; that is a legitimate question and that’s why an investigation is needed. Still others have been less charitable and their comments can only be called attacks.

A question needs to be asked to those who criticize Rachel Slabaugh: Whatever did or did not happen on Friday, comments on social media have made clear this kind of conduct has been happening for years. Her letter got something done. Has anything else worked that anyone else has tried?

These problems are not new, and sometimes strong action is needed. Because we are a military community, Waynesville has had minority members on its sports teams much longer than most of our neighboring districts. More than half a century ago, when members of a Waynesville sports team were traveling to another district and went to a restaurant to eat a meal, the restaurant (which was not in Camdenton) refused to serve the African-American members of the Waynesville team. The Waynesville school board president, who at that time was Art Anderson, happened to be present and was angry enough that he had the entire team get up and leave the restaurant without paying for the meal.

It would be nice to say such problems are ancient history. This weekend, however, reports have surfaced of Waynesville students being told “we don’t serve your kind” when traveling with their teams to neighboring towns. Accusations have been made that serious property damage was done by one visiting team to the Waynesville locker room. Reports of racial slurs, it seems, are only the tip of the iceberg.

These things should not be happening. No student should find that his personal property has been urinated on by a visiting sports team. No student should hear people in the stands screaming “Way to go, Lakers!” when a Waynesville player gets hurt. No student should be called the N-word by fans of an opposing sports team who just lost their game. No student should be told “we don’t serve your kind here.” No student should have to watch fans of the opposing team who threw “bananas at our football team and repeatedly called them monkeys and other racial slurs.”

That goes double when the student is from a military family and has one or both parents fighting overseas to defend the United States.

So far, the response in Waynesville has been remarkably restrained. Several students have written letters to the Camdenton principal in addition to the one letter which went public. Numerous residents have asked when the next Waynesville school board meeting will happen, presumably intending to ask for action at that board meeting. Quite a few people have called for Waynesville teams to refuse to play Camdenton; while that’s very unlikely to happen, calling for some sort of sanction against the Camdenton team would be entirely appropriate if their school district refuses to take action to control or at least rebuke their fans for racist attacks on other teams.

Acting with restraint is right. We don't yet have absolute proof of all the facts. First reports are almost always incomplete, they may be incorrect, and sometimes need significant clarification. We can expect the Camdenton school officials to demand proof before people are punished.

Unfortunately — and this is the reason for the title of this editorial — not everyone has been restrained. Comments such as these are also being posted online:

  • “I will recruit every single Latino to sit there! I will insult them in Spanish and English! I promise!”
  • “Tears? Really? (Profanity deleted) when I was there we would have flipped them the bird, told them to go have sex with themselves and gone on about our businesses. I guess Waynesville parents have all wimped out. Nothing but a bunch of cry babies.”
  • “I saw what the little jerk just did and if he puts his hands on my son again I'll find his parents and do the same thing to them. I've had about enough of that school district and the way they train children to be overly aggressive from the start.”
  • “Last year's boys basketball game was horrible!! Very, very unsportsmanlike!! I was about to go in the face of a boy in the stands who was sitting by us. (Name deleted) was in shock of the words coming out of the boys mouth. Principal did come over but as soon as he left it all started again. Cops came and stood outside till our busses pulled off.”

More such comments, and worse ones, could be cited. Fortunately, responses such as this have been more common: “Bravo for Waynesville Parents maintaining their Composure and being Mature and not letting a full out Brawl ensue!”

However, refusing to deal with Rachel Slabaugh’s letter, or failing to take her concerns seriously, will not end well. The quotes above indicate that we clearly have local residents prepared to respond in ways which are much more aggressive than writing a polite letter.

A strong caution to such people: This is an Army town, and many of us have spent time in parts of the world where a “rush to judgment” gets people thrown in jail, or worse. We need to reflect American values of justice in how we handle this incident, and those values include being innocent until proven guilty.

Our community, due in large measure to the presence of Fort Leonard Wood, has 75 years of experience with significant numbers of minority students in our schools. Certainly the Army does not have a perfect record on racial issues, but many of us in a military community take for granted that Americans are supposed to be “red white and blue,” not focused on being black, white, yellow, or some other color. Around here, it’s not a big deal for us to have a Hispanic police chief in Waynesville, or a St. Robert police chief whose African-American father married a German woman while stationed overseas with the Army, or a former St. Robert mayor who is African-American, or a current St. Robert mayor who is married to an Asian, or current and former members on both city councils who are minorities.

Clearly not everyone in our surrounding communities thinks that way.

What Ferguson showed America is that regardless of what did or did not happen with a specific incident, too many members of minority groups have silently put up with racial bigotry and abuse, not just for years but for decades, and get very angry when a new incident blows up — not so much because of the new incident but because of a long history of prior problems which they perceived didn’t get properly addressed. Thanks to social media, incidents which years ago would have been known only to dozens or hundreds of people are now known to thousands or tens of thousands, and once they go public, the new reports can and sometimes do unleash massive amounts of pent-up resentment over racial bigotry.

Our school district, as well as the Camdenton district, now has an opportunity to address what appear to be problems which go back for decades. The window to address those problems in proper ways will not remain open indefinitely. Ferguson shows us what happens when pent-up resentment gets ignored and when people who use the proper channels don’t get heard.

Things could be swept under the rug in the past, and victims of racial bigotry could be told to stay silent and not complain. Regardless of whether what was done in the past was right or wrong, it won’t work today. It didn’t work in Ferguson, and it won’t work here.

Rachel Slabaugh had the courage to speak up. She should be praised, not punished, and certainly not silenced.

We live in America, and people are innocent until proven guilty. Her claims need to be investigated. Camdenton deserves to be given the chance to clean up this mess, but their officials can’t act without facts, they need time to do their own investigation, and it’s possible that the necessary evidence doesn’t exist. People cannot be punished without proof, and if nobody will talk who knows the names of the people shouting racial slurs, the Camdenton school district cannot act.

We believe in justice, and racial equality has been part of our Constitution for almost a century and a half. The Constitution was amended following the Civil War and discrimination was specifically forbidden against people “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Individual people can say what they want, but when people act this way at a school sponsored event, they give their entire community a bad name. Let's give Camdenton time to clean up the mess that some of their fans apparently caused, and in the meantime, let's not give Camdenton people cause to be upset at us by our actions.

Regardless of what may or may not have happened on Friday, this kind of bigotry has been going on against Waynesville players for longer than most of us have been alive. It needs to stop. With social media and video capabilities of cell phone cameras, we now have the tools to stop it. Let's get the evidence and get it stopped.

When people from a visiting sports team come to Waynesville, they need to expect cameras will be watching. Same when our teams play elsewhere — nobody should be acting this way, and that includes Waynesville players, parents, students and fans. Officials need facts to act, and providing video footage of racist incidents is a great way to stop them from happening.

Positive proof is the best weapon. Responding in kind to racial slurs helps nothing, and just makes both communities look bad.

Click here for comments and local opinion.

Link to original article: Camdenton, Waynesville school officials pledge investigation of racial slurs at Friday football game

Click here for discussion of Rachel Slabaugh's original email to Camdenton principal. 

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