In the aftermath of what officials say was an innocently-constructed banner displayed at the Hillsboro-McClain football game on Friday, a cheerleading squad gathered in Greenfield McClain Principal Jason Pott’s office on Monday with heads hung and eyes full of tears, Potts said.
It all started with a banner made by the cheerleaders for the McClain Tiger football team and designed for the team to rip through prior to Friday’s game with the school’s longtime rival, the Hillsboro High School Indians. That game each year between the two teams is also the Rotary Bowl, with the winner gaining possession of a large trophy that has been passed between the two teams for more than 30 years. It is also the last game of the season.
But above this year’s game hangs the ominous cloud of ridicule from those offended by the banner that read, “Hey Indians, Get Ready for a Trail of Tears Part 2.”
Since that ill-considered attempt to fire up players and fans alike before the rival teams took to the field, the banner has gained national attention, and Greenfield school officials have fielded hundreds of calls, emails, and comments from those offended by the banner.
The banner’s reference to the Trail of Tears, which was the forced migration of the Cherokee nation in 1838 and 1839 where thousands died en route to land west of the Mississippi River, is something Potts in a press release over the weekend called “a horrific mistake” and something that was “created out of ignorance, not hate.”
Potts is adamant that the girls’ intent was not one of racially-motivated malice. He said he has known all the girls for six and seven years, and the cruel backlash received from across the nation is not warranted for the teenagers who found their idea for the banner on Pinterest.
The banner should have been reviewed beforehand, he said, and approved by the cheerleaders’ advisor. He said he wasn’t aware of the banner until he arrived at the game during the second half.
Greenfield Exempted Village School District Superintendent Joe Wills said the same, adding that he became aware of the content of the banner, and the fact that it had already been posted to the Internet, from a Greenfield person during the game. There was no other talk about the banner that he heard, he said.
According to Wills, the school administrators spoke throughout the weekend about how to best address the situation. Wills said the district intends to provide another press release to media sources in the coming days. This information, he said, will tell how the district has followed up on the matter.
On Monday, the cheerleaders gathered with Potts in his office. He said he wanted feedback from them and he wanted “to see where they were coming from” when they made the banner. He wanted to hear about what had happened to them over the weekend, too. He said the students had received harsh feedback, online and elsewhere.
Potts said the purpose for meeting with the girls, too, was to make a “plan of action” with the girls’ input.
Potts spent more than 20 hours at the school over the weekend, he said. While some of that was devoted to fielding the calls and emails coming in from across the nation from those who said they were offended, he said he also spent time crafting lesson plans.
On Monday, all English classes in the high school were reading a journal account written by someone who was a part of the Trail of Tears. All social studies classes on Monday were engaged in learning about the 19th century event, too, he said. Students were also to engage in group discussions.
Also on Monday, Potts said a member of the cheerleading squad speaking for the group as a whole recorded an audio message, an apology to the students and staff who have been impacted by the outcry.
On Wednesday, the McClain student council will be meeting with the Hillsboro High School student council to talk about the issue surrounding the banner, a suggestion by Hillsboro High School principal Jason Snively, Potts said.
According to Snively, his reaction to the banner was that it “was probably not the best way to put things” as the content of the banner could “be taken out of context, hurtful.” But he realized that the banner was the work of “young adolescents,” he said. “I honestly don’t believe it was meant out of hate for any culture.”
The HHS principal said, though, that the banner showed that there was a matter of sensitivity that needed to be addressed.
Snively said the idea to get the student leaders together was so that they could discuss the matter and so “both school districts can move forward.” He said it is a chance for Hillsboro to be a “supportive neighbor” and the students can have a chance to talk about the situation.
He said students coming together this week will be an educational experience where ways to empathize with other cultures can be talked about, all of it with a goal of promoting “a positive society for us all.”
McClain students do so much good, Potts said, and that is being overshadowed by Friday’s banner. For two years the student body has engaged in a community service day, performing various deeds around Greenfield that have included cleaning up properties, picking up trash, and painting. Students have also, on two different occasions, raised funds to help a couple families in need, Potts said.
Another part of the action plan addressing the issue involves the cheerleading squad going to one of the several Native American sites nearby – Hopewell Culture, Seip Mound, Serpent Mound – and volunteering. That will happen on Saturday, Nov. 19, Potts said, adding that if a volunteering opportunity is not available on that day, they will still be educated.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.