DAHLONEGA — Community members in Dahlonega called for diversity training in reaction to a group of students wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes at school as part of history project.
“We need to pull a conversation together to bring healing,” the Rev. Markel Hutchins, a general counsel for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said at Fortson Memorial Church Monday night. “Sometimes it takes a tragic incident to bring forth change, and this shows that every educator needs diversity and cultural sensitivity training.”
On Thursday, six students in an advanced placement U.S. history class at Lumpkin County High School dressed up in Klan-like costumes for a class presentation about historical eras. Cody Rider, a senior at the school, said he was sitting in the cafeteria when his cousin ran to him and told him about the students.
“I was outraged and started crying, that’s how mad I was,” Rider said at the meeting. “I decided to go up there and do something about it, but a coach stopped me and told me to not do anything stupid.”
Lumpkin County Schools Superintendent Dewey Moye said the teacher, Catherine Ariemma, made a poor decision, but is a solid teacher with a good record. But there are no excuses, Moye said, and students can learn without the costumes.
“It’s like if the students were studying World War II and dressed up in Nazi uniforms,” he said. “It wasn’t done to inflame, and the intent was not to cause a defamatory or racial situation, but she used bad judgement and never should have done that.”
Moye said the teacher is on leave with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation.
Ariemma said Monday that students were covering an important and sensitive topic — but one that she might handle differently in the future.
“It was poor judgment on my part in allowing them to film at school,” Ariemma said. “That was a hard lesson learned.”
Ariemma said her students watch films in class and later create their own films. She said the students brainstorm and pick topics to cover, and this class decided to trace the history of racism in America.
She said the class has 15 students of multiple races, but no blacks.
A group of five students took on the subject that included covering the history of the notorious white supremacist group.
“The kids brought the sheets in, they had SpongeBob party hats underneath to make it shaped like a cone,” Ariemma said. “They cut out the eyes so they could see.”
Ariemma said she led the students through the cafeteria to a location where they shot the scene. Administrators will review the film and decide if it will be shown in the classroom.
She said the students who wore the sheets were shaken when they realized other students were upset.
“The issue is not the integrity of the teacher but the mindset and the mentality,” Hutchins said. “This was missing good common sense and was not appropriate.”
Hutchins said he would meet with the Lumpkin County sheriff, Dahlonega mayor and Moye in the next few days to discuss training ideas.
Community members had mixed attitudes about racism in Lumpkin County. For Tameka Eason, 28, Thursday’s incident was reason enough to decide her son won’t be attending Lumpkin County High School next year.
“This town is racist,” she said. “It’s been going on here before my time.”
But Frank Lamar Green said three generations of his family has lived in Dahlonega without encountering racist situations.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and we just haven’t had this here,” he said. “That’s why this is so touchy and why we can’t understand it.”
Community members also called for safety measures for students in case of any retaliation. Hutchins said he would talk to the Lumpkin County sheriff Monday night and also would ask Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents to “be on notice.”
“We’re here to build bridges, not to escalate the situation,” he said. “Remember, this is a long distance race and it won’t just improve overnight.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report