UPDATE: Spencer/Storm Lake…The REST Of The Story

Spencer, Iowa — The report of racial slurs being hurled during a Spencer vs Storm Lake basketball game earlier this month have been widely and, according to Randy Cauthron of the Spencer Daily Reporter newspaper, erroneously reported by various media across the United States, giving the Spencer Tiger student section an undeserved black eye.

The following is a column published in the Spencer Daily Reporter after Cauthron dug a little deeper than just the surface, and found out, as Paul Harvey used to say, the Rest of The Story.

Cauthron’s column is shared here, in it’s entirety, with Mr. Cauthron’s permission. We share it in an effort to set the record straight, and provide some measure of vindication for the Spencer High School student body.

Attacking Our #CommUNITY, by Randy Cauthron

At the risk of ruffling a few feathers (and I’m no stranger to that), I feel the need to defend our school system, our students and administration and our community which came under attack over the last few days for what I would like to suggest was poor journalism on both a local and national level.

Stay with me, this gets long, but first allow me to offer congratulations.

The owner/editor/publisher of a neighboring newspaper decided to inject an incident from a recent high school basketball game (Jan. 19 Storm Lake at Spencer) into his political narrative as an example of the rampant racism stemming from the influence of our current GOP leadership in northwest Iowa and America. I’m not going to argue the political claim. Everyone is entitled to their own take on that. And when the word “racism” is used, it has substantial impact as exhibited by the universal spread of the story targeting our school, its student body and staff. So if the idea was to get his article out there and stand in the spotlight as a champion of human rights, it worked. People are reading the opinion piece which went public the middle of last week.

Problem is, the editorial, and subsequent news stories which used the piece as the launching pad are sharing inaccurate information.

How do I know? Because the Daily Reporter received an email copy of it from someone allegedly associated with the ACLU insisting we look into the matter.

And we did. As a matter of fact, I will provide information from both schools which will prove my claim of poor journalism on a huge scale.

I sat for 1 1/2 hours, from 10:30 a.m. to noon Thursday with Spencer Community School District Superintendent Terry Hemann, SHS Principal Elli Wiemers, SHS Assistant Principal Jade Beehler and district Activities Director Ryan Sweeney and had them walk me through the entire Friday evening in question. Now here’s what’s important. Both Wiemers and Sweeney were both standing near the student section all night long. They were actually right there. Please keep that in mind as we proceed. The two recounted the events of the evening. Including when they were first made aware of a text sent out by a student encouraging other students to show up in the USA-themed gear. It came during a casual conversation between themselves and Storm Lake Activities Director Ty Seaman in between games. They had been talking — as is often the case between school administrators during the break — Seaman shared it with the two Spencer administrators. Neither said they received the vibe he was angry about it. They estimated a total of 10 to 12 kids came sporting the red, white and blue

Later in the evening, Wiemers and Sweeney said a small group of Spencer fans in the student section began shaking keys and chanting something to the effect of “lock your cars” or “lock your doors.” The administrators, not understanding the context of the key shaking or the chant, made them stop immediately.

Other than the typical back-and-forth chants between the student sections about not being able to hear the cheers of the opposition and challenging each other about who has how much spirit — the two said nothing appeared out of place, and the game went on without issue. During the game, a Storm Lake player received a technical foul after allegedly “taunting” the Spencer team bench and fans following a blocked shot. Following the official’s “T,” the Storm Lake coach reportedly benched him for the rest of the game.

This was the height of the drama on the night according to the two administrators. Nobody else cited in these news reports were there.

Storm Lake Principal Beau Ruleaux told the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune — our sister paper — he did not become aware of the basketball incidents until the following day, when he started getting texts reporting “some ugly situations.”

The two districts began communicating on the matter immediately after Ruleaux was contacted. He was not at the game so he had no first-hand knowledge, but was going off what he was being told.

“It depends on perception,” Ruleaux said in the story. “Some of our students said it wasn’t bad, and some were offended. Some of the adults I talked to said it wasn’t really a problem, and some thought it was horrible.”

Also reported in the Pilot-Tribune, Ruleaux said he did not believe the “USA Night” was aimed at the visitors, noting Storm Lake also has several theme nights during sports seasons.

The two districts remained in correspondence over the next few days to address questions, to get to the bottom of what actually happened and deal with it accordingly. After two snow days, when the students returned to class, Sweeney and Wiemers began investigating allegations being made about student behaviors. In the end, a student was disciplined regarding the key jangling incident.

The jangling of keys is done in some Division I college games to suggest “not in our house.” That however was apparently not the case here as it was meant for a particular Storm Lake player who had been involved in an incident involving a car. The unidentified student was disciplined for violating athletic association policy regarding targeting a specific team player. It had nothing to do with racism. Wiemers admitted neither she nor Sweeney had any context for the key jangling with regard to the Storm Lake player.

This is what they shared with me regarding the evening specifically:

“Nobody chanted ‘USA,'” Sweeney said. “We (he and Wiemers) were right there. That was not factual. It was not true.”

“I interviewed 10 students who were in the front row,” Wiemers said. “We chanted ‘lock your cars’ and jingled keys, but never chanted ‘USA.'”

“Our kids exhibited behavior that doesn’t meet the standards of Spencer High School,” Sweeney said. “Some of the kids doing it felt like they were friends of his. … It was unsportsmanlike. It was wrong. It’s been addressed.”

Wiemers pointed out, “It’s against (athletic association) rules to single out a player. And it’s against our rules here. We’re better than that.”

Spencer Assistant Principal Jade Beehler stressed, “How we put actions out there and how others perceive them is important.”

“It’s not just racial issues necessarily but how we treat people — our classmates, our family, community, students from other schools coming here to play — it’s an opportunity for our kids to learn. Sometimes they don’t always understand the ramifications of their actions. We will take additional precautions going forward.”

Apologies were made for the inappropriate behavior and time to move on. Right? Not so much.

To put this in context, harken back to October when the Tigers and Tornados met on the football field in Storm Lake. Following the hard fought Tiger win, the Spencer fans began an ill-advised victory lap (probably not wise on any opponents field) and there were reportedly racial slurs exchanged involving a small number of Spencer students and and hometown fans. The students involved were disciplined.

Since that time, the two schools have created and engaged in an ambassador program between the two schools which by all accounts has been a huge success and helped build both a bridge and cultural awareness, as well as help build some new friendships. It was so beneficial the two districts have agreed to resume the effort in the spring.

So back to the present, the Jan. 19 basketball incident had been investigated and handled. Inappropriate key jangling was punished. Then came the aforementioned Storm Lakes Times editorial setting off a firestorm of nationwide articles which took the racist narrative and ran with it.

I’ve spent quite a few days reading and listening to the garbage out there. It included the shoddy journalism and use of sound bites to try and spin a racist narrative about the Spencer schools and the community at large.

An Associated Press story which ran across the country regarding the game suggested SHS students chanted, “go back to where you came from,” in the lead paragraph beneath a headline which read: “Racist chants rain down on Iowa high school basketball team.” Does that sound like an accurate depiction of what happened based on administrators from either school?

I’ve looked at the comments on social media from people who weren’t at the game and have no idea what really happened weigh in but can’t wait to offer their two cents without asking any questions.

Are there racists in Spencer? I’m sure there are. Are there racists among the student body at SHS and other schools in Spencer? Sadly, percentages would suggest yes. Are there racists in Storm Lake and Storm Lake schools? I would imagine so. Is there a community in this country which is completely free of racism? Once again, I would point to the statistics and suggest, although I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, mostly likely not.

Now if we can work from the framework that Spencer, nor anywhere else, is free of racism, I would like to proceed.

There is no excuse for the behavior at the football game in October. That was racism, and it was ugly, and it was handled. I would like to point out however it was far from a widespread behavior. It’s not as though the entire student section or even a large part of it, was shouting out racial slurs. It was a disgusting but limited interaction. It was a very limited behavior which was immediately condemned by both the administration and peers at the school.

Since then, the two teams have met athletically on the volleyball court, wrestling mat and basketball court with no report of incidents of recurrences. Additionally, we have the successful introduction and implementation of the student ambassadors program which seems to be going well.

Then we have the Friday, Jan. 19, basketball game. I have no idea about the motivation behind the USA Night or Red White and Blue Night or however it was termed in the social media platform where it was shared. I’m not a mind-reader. Was it an act of patriotism or was it meant to rub the diverse population of Storm Lake the wrong way? I can’t honestly say. But the “reported” accusations of chants telling them to “go back to where you came from” are a falsehood. It never happened. It’s a fantasy being reported as fact to further a narrative, and it’s sick.

Jangling keys and chanting “lock your doors” or “cars” or whatever, had nothing to do with race. It had something to do with a specific young person who was involved in a poor life choice. Was it a jerk move? You could certainly argue that point. But was it racist? No. It was unsportsmanlike, and that is precisely what the district apologized for.

Still the story being told, to sell newspapers and move stories, works better when you paint this largely caucasian, Steve King voting district, school as a hotbed of racial venom and hatred to others of darker skin tone. And that’s just sick. It’s an unfair portrayal of a school and district.

And a few phone calls to verify information, ask some questions and talk to people who were right there could have prevented it. Had the other news sources conducted their due diligence, had the author of the initial editorial actually spoken with SHS administrators who were right there — and he didn’t, I asked them — then I wouldn’t be writing this lengthy piece defending the community I call home and the district where my children attend school.

The headline: “Racist chants rain down on Iowa high school basketball team” sells papers but isn’t true.

The AP article claimed: SHS students chanted “go back to where you came from.” Draws lots of eyes and gasps, but it didn’t happen.

A Storm Lake Times editorial stated: “These kids get this hate someplace, and we hope it’s not the water. It’s their parents, their teachers and their friends. …” captures the attention of the ACLU and social media chatter — but is based on false information.

Spencer is not a racist haven as some have suggested. Nor are the vast majority of its students, teachers, coaches or administrators I’ve met here in my nearly 15 years as part of this community. Racism is here. It’s everywhere unfortunately. But it is not being taught or modeled in our community or schools as the editorial suggested. The alleged behaviors, which never happened, have helped create an image of Spencer which simply is not accurate. It sells papers. It draws eyes. But when the information being reported is inaccurate and the research method is flawed those who spread the misinformation are responsible for the hurt it creates for the targeted school and the strain it creates on the relationship between the institutions.

The Spencer schools administration apologized for the student’s inappropriate behavior associated with key jangling because it was the right thing to do. I would hope those who failed to do their job as members of the public trust, as media, would be adult enough to offer Spencer schools the same apology for the damage they’ve done in the name of selling papers with their own inappropriate behavior.

On a positive note, a week after the basketball game, the Spencer and Storm Lake wrestling teams competed in the Lakes Conference Tournament in Le Mars. As the evening concluded, the two schools who had just battled in the final conference event of the year came together — with stat girls and cheerleaders — locked arm and arm to take a picture. Smiling they stood on the mat as parents from both schools and many skin tones clicked away with cameras and cellphones. In that moment everything that needed to be said was said. I reposted the shot with hashtag #CommUNITY.

Let this be the first step going forward.

This column can also be found at the Spencer Daily Reporter’s website.


Original story posted 3:31 pm, January 26, 2018

Spencer, Iowa — Spencer Community Schools officials say some of their students who attended a boys basketball game last week directed racist chants against their Storm Lake opponents, but now several people who were in attendance at the game, including one African-American Spencer student, say it never happened.

Officials from both schools have been reported as saying that the students chanted, “Go back to where you came from”, and “USA.” The student body of the Storm Lake Community Schools is comprised of upwards of 80% non-Caucasian students.

Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann has said school officials took “immediate action.” He says the students involved have been disciplined, but declined to provide details.

The Spencer students, many of whom were were wearing patriotic attire also reportedly shook their keys and chanted the phrase, “Lock your cars”, in reference to a Storm Lake student who was accused of stealing a car last year.

Several people who attended the January 19th game acknowledged that the car key incident did occur, but were adamant that the reported racial slurs simply didn’t happen.

At least one Spencer High School student, who is African-American, stated on social media that he was seated in the front row at the game, and if any racial slurs had been chanted, he’d have heard them, and said they “wouldn’t slide by with me.”

Meanwhile Superintendent Hemann says the Spencer School District is using the alleged incident as a “teachable moment.”

Radio Iowa contributed to this story



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