What’s crazy is not that a Colorado teacher let his students smash a piñata with pictures of Donald Trump and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto on it; that was merely foolish. What’s crazy is what happened after that, culminating in a local newspaper blaming the woman who publicly complained about the incident for threats of violence made against her and her daughter.
Let’s back up. Lesley Hollywood, whom I’ve interviewed at political rallies, posted publicly on Facebook May 5:
So, this happened at my daughter’s high school today. The Spanish teacher allowed students to destroy a pinata that had Trump’s face on it (unclear if it was his idea or a student driven idea, but regardless it was allowed). UPDATE: According to students, the other side of the pinata had a picture of Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. There are multiple videos of this all over various students’ social media accounts.
Now it’s no secret I didn’t vote for Trump, and I’m certainly not his biggest fan. I’d be outraged by this if it was Obama or Bush or Clinton. It’s really unbelievable, especially right here in little ol’ Johnstown, Colorado (a town which is honestly fairly conservative).
I will definitely be taking this up with the school.
The school in question is Roosevelt High, near Greeley in Weld County north of Denver.
I do not share Hollywood’s outrage about the incident. I have long been aware that smashing politically-themed piñatas is fairly common in various Hispanic cultures. Clearly bashing a piñata often is not an expression of hatred, as reports by the Missourian and the New Yorker indicate. The fact that the piñata in question featured the presidents of the United States and Mexico seems to indicate that the school event was not partisan. (I have not seen a report about what the teacher said or is alleged to have said about the event.)
On the other hand, the teacher, Jay Moser, probably should have thought a little harder about how the piñata might be interpreted in rural Colorado, where the practice of smashing politically-themed piñatas is not common. This is especially true given that bashing Trump piñatas often is an expression of hatred or contempt for the man, as reports by the Progressive and Politico indicate. And this is in the aftermath of such stories as one in Texas in which a teacher shot a picture of Trump with a water gun while yelling “Die!” We’re in uneasy political times.
What might have been an appropriate resolution to the incident? The principal of the school might have invited Moser and Hollywood to meet, where Moser could have explained the cultural context and agreed not to pursue similar projects in the future and Hollywood could have expressed her concerns. End of story. Unfortunately, nothing like that happened.
Instead, the superintendent of the district publicly condemned Moser as the district put Moser on administrative leave, a move that strikes me as an overreaction.
Far worse, “a potential threat to the school” resulted in the school closing on May 8. According to a You Caring page for Hollywood intended to raise funds for legal representation over the matter, both Hollywood and her daughter—a student at the school—received a large volume of messages expressing “harassment, intimidation and threats,” including one hoping for “a bullet in [Hollywood’s] brain.” The You Caring page says that the person who sent that message has been “charged with harassment” (a claim I have not independently verified).
Regardless of what one thinks about Hollywood’s response to the incident, she has every right to publicly express concerns about events at the tax-funded school her daughter attends. Others have a right to criticize her remarks in turn—but certainly not to threaten her or her daughter.
Astoundingly, a May 15 editorial by the Greeley Tribune in effect blames Hollywood for the threats she received, saying “the unruly threats from students” were “sparked” by her reaction (as well as by that of the “district officials”). The Tribune mocks Hollywood for posting her concerns to Facebook rather than quietly “taking her concerns to the administration or the principal.” Then the editorial board, apparently experts all in Freudian psychoanalysis, imagine that Hollywood expressed her concerns and then appeared “on local and national media” because “she enjoys the attention” and has an “addiction to the buzz of hornets.” The Tribune says that the students who issued the threats merely “followed the adults’ lead and overreacted themselves”—as if threats of violence were remotely comparable to peaceable speech. Regarding the threats, the Tribune writes, “We feel bad for her child, but [Hollywood is] the one who kicked the nest.”
The Tribune’s editorial is shameful, cowardly, and hypocritical. When the Tribune’s reporters have concerns about the conduct of a tax-funded government employee, do they go quietly to that employee’s bosses and seek an unpublicized resolution? Obviously not; the Tribune rushes to blare the news in large headlines. If someone threatened the Tribune or one of its reporters—even if the Tribune published an article of disputed appropriateness—would the Tribune’s editorial board blame itself or its employees for the threats? Obviously not; presumably the Tribune would instead loudly denounce the threat and stand proudly on its right of free speech. Apparently the Tribune holds itself and its staff to different standards than apply to rubes such as Hollywood, who after all was so provocative that surely she had it coming.
As the Tribune notes, the teacher and the district exercised poor judgment in this incident. Arguably Hollywood and various activists and parties in the media did as well. But the Tribune‘s editorial board would do well to peer into a mirror. Whatever missteps Hollywood might have made, they do not justify or excuse people harassing or threatening her or her daughter. Whatever poor judgment the teacher, the district, or Hollywood may have exhibited, the poor judgment behind the Tribune’s despicable editorial is vastly worse.
Lesley Hollywood Replies
Something that I feel has been grossly missed regarding this whole story is why I feel an activity like this is inappropriate for school. I understand pinatas are part of Mexican culture, and I take no issue with high school students learning about different cultures. I actually lived in Mexico as a kid and became immersed in the culture myself. I have been to Guatemala a handful of times, Ecuador twice, as well as various other countries across the world. When I was 18, I had been to more countries than I had states. I don’t lack an understanding of culture simply because I now live in rural Colorado, nor do I take issue with culture being taught in our schools.
But these days school is about more than “teaching”; it’s about helping our children excel and even for some, simply survive. In the past three years, I have watched two horrible teen suicides rattle this tiny town. I have heard heartbreaking stories of bullying. I’ve watched kids (including my own) face personal challenges that the school has little sympathy for. I have an expectation of teachers to not make this worse.
I feel it is irresponsible for a teacher to allow a class of eight students who lack the maturity to separate a political meaning from a cultural meaning when putting the president’s face on a piñata (and not long after one of the ugliest elections I’ve ever seen), then take said piñata outside into a commons area to beat it up, where the 967 other students from the school could see the activity take place. These 967 other students were not in the class and did not get the accompanying lesson but get to witness this activity.
I care about these kids. Not just mine, all of them. Activities like this only further divide students and encourage animosity which leads to more bullying and more suicide. I expect teachers to do what they can do to keep that from happening, not exacerbate it. Does that mean they don’t touch controversial subjects? No. But it means they do it in a responsible manner. I feel this teacher’s actions were very irresponsible.
My understanding is the kids from the class put Trump and Nieto on the piñata because they didn’t like either of them, they had a political/cultural lesson in class, then proceeded outside for the piñata celebration. A great alternative to the piñata could have been a civics lesson or even a mock-election, a chance to teach these kids what they can do if they do not like the president. How they can become engaged. Maybe discuss if Trump’s executive orders are constitutional. There are so many alternatives.
Regardless of how these kids feel about the president, these kids are our future leaders and turning something so serious into a joke is a very bad idea in my book.