A Homecoming parade float constructed by members of the Ashland High School Class of 2017 has resulted in criticism from a number of members of the Ashland community and a written apology by School District of Ashland Superintendent Keith Hilts.
Hilts made the apology in a letter to students, parents, staff and community received by The Daily Press Sunday evening.
In the letter, Hilts apologized for “poor taste” in the senior float, which consisted of a flatbed trailer with a banner that read, “Trump the Birds,” a reference to the Homecoming high school football game pitting the Ashland Oredockers against the Lakeland Thunderbirds. The float had a banner on the side reading “Trump the Birds.”
The float also featured a student dressed up in Red Pants, a blue jacket with white stars on it and a vivid orange wig, caricaturing Donald Trump. At the rear of a float was a wall made of empty boxes, behind which were several students, one of whom held a Mexican flag, clearly a reference to Trump’s oft-repeated claims that he would build a wall at the US-Mexico border.
In part, Hilt’s letter noted that the float “offended many of our community members.”
“I apologize for any pain that was caused,” Hilts wrote in the letter. “The float in question represented Donald Trump on one side of a wall and several of our students portraying people of Hispanic heritage in less than flattering attire on the other side of the wall.”
Hilts said he was the one who approved a theme of “Trump the T-Birds.”
“I was hoping that students were interested in using current political events in the parade. I did not expect any racially slanted messages. I am sorry that this happened. If I had it to do over again we would have more closely supervised the students’ work.”
Hilts said the results are his fault for not ensuring closer supervision.
“This is particularly sad because we work so hard to make all students feel welcome in our schools, and this one event has undone so much good work.”
“While I cannot undo this event, we will work hard to make this a teachable moment for students and staff. Specifically, we will have some mature conversations with students about race and ethnicity, media and unintended consequences. Further we will work as a staff to tighten up our supervision of our students during these important events.”
Hilts said it was vital to work together to “make the best of this unfortunate event.”
“The School District of Ashland will work hard to regain the trust of our community,” he said, inviting community members to contact him at 715-682-7080 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Contacted by The Daily Press on Monday, Hilts was asked if the students involved in the float faced disciplinary action.
“Right now we are just trying to figure out what happened and support the families and the staff. I don’t really have any kind of a comment about that,” he said.
Hilts emphasized that he alone was responsible among the staff for approval of the Homecoming floats.
“I am responsible for it, as I said in the letter,” he said, saying he didn’t have anything to add beyond what was in the letter.
“We are just trying to figure out how we are going to support the students and move beyond this,” he said.
Meanwhile, the float has become a hot topic of debate in the Ashland area, particularly on social media. One person who commented on his Facebook page is an Ashland Hispanic man, Xristobal Luis Ramirez Maso, who said he was deeply saddened to see the float.
“The float read "TrumptheBirds" and had Mexicans depicted on one side — clad in drug rugs, with fake mustaches or in plad shirts buttoned at the top and bandannas on their head (I assume to look like Cholos) with football players, other seniors, and a mock Donald Trump on the other side of the wall,” he said in his Facebook post. “I love where I live. The people around me are loving, caring, compassionate, and empowering. Ashland is my home. We are a people who know and understand that our community is stronger when we stand together.
“To those of you who were sitting on main street laughing at this, know that your neighbor, your Mexican American neighbor, was next to you feeling prosecuted for the first time in this place we both call home. “To those of you on the float, I understand that your intentions were probably not to make me feel threatened or unwelcome, and maybe you think I'm being hyper sensitive, maybe I am, but know that your actions extend far beyond yourself.”
As of Monday evening the comments have drawn 590 shares and 260 comments, both in support and in opposition.
Some of the comments were about the fallout of the controversy.
“The children were making fun of Trump and his awful wall, it was a statement AGAINST racism,” said Kristie Lynn. “My goodness people. They are children. Leave them alone already. They did not realize people would take it the wrong way because they weren't thinking that way. I apologize that your feelings were hurt. I am sorry the children did not realize this would hurt people. The float was made up with children of many different ethnicities and this class has been through enough trauma. Time to be adults and leave the children alone. They have been talked to. They understand that some people think differently than they do. They have apologized. Enough already.”
Others believed that the incident was not a minor matter.
“What those kids did was hateful and hurtful,” said Rebecca Albrecht. “I hope we all learn and grow from their actions. In our district, every float has a committee and a faculty advisor for this reason. Kids don't always get it right and need guidance, which was obviously lacking in this situation.”
Still others felt that the entire issue was overblown.
“I know the kids,” said Kerri Trubachik. “Many are underage. They are high school kids. They made fun of a racist wall. They don't deserve this backlash.”
Meanwhile another voice urged that the controversy be ratcheted down.
“I am sincerely praying that one of these kids doesn't crack under pressure and decide it's better to be gone then here!” said Tamara Salas. “This has gone too far... at this point, the public has put them on the witness stand (very harshly) and the school, although it needs to be addressed, better help these kids through this. Their parents as well — this has been brought to levels that are unacceptable and I felt bad about the float at first, but now I'm upset for what these kids are enduring. All I ask is that their parents and the school holds them close and nobody looses a family member over a float posted on social media!”