KKK costumes at school rile Lumpkin County residents: Read more background on this story.
A compromise was reached Tuesday between community and school leaders on a plan of action after four students dressed up in Ku Klux Klan garb for a Lumpkin County High School history project last week.
Yet Dahlonega residents have mixed feelings about the incident and the reaction it has caused.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta met with Lumpkin County Schools Superintendent Dewey Moye, Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard, County Commission Chairman John Radar, Dahlonega Mayor Gary McCollough and teacher Catherine Ariemma to discuss the incident.
On Thursday, six students in an advanced placement U.S. history class at Lumpkin County High 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. A parent complained to Moye, and Ariemma was placed on administrative leave without pay.
Hutchins met with upset community members at Fortson Memorial Church in Dahlonega on Monday night to uncover details about what happened, and Rider explained his point of view. In the meeting, Hutchins said he planned to “find a solution” and proposed diversity training for teachers.
After the closed door meeting Tuesday, Hutchins revealed several decisions: local pastors will hold a town hall meeting in the coming weeks; school employees will undergo sensibility and diversity training; and the school will hold an assembly of all the students to talk about the incident.
“What happened will not happen again. The superintendent said appropriate measures will be put in place,” Hutchins said. “No one in the higher administration knew the project was taking place.”
Moye said Ariemma apologized during the meeting, and he will not call for her resignation.
“We’re going to work hard to address the sensibility of the students and work diligently to resolve misunderstanding,” Moye said. “We’re focused on making this the best place for students to be.”
No one else spoke at the press conference, and several reporters chased Ariemma to her car.
“We made progress,” she said to a co-worker before the conference started. “There’s a silver lining here.”
Hutchins added that not all problems were solved, however.
“Some think there is no problem, and although you don’t think so personally, clearly some tension arises,” he said. “We need to get beyond these symbols of racial hatred.”
Before the press conference, about two dozen students and a few parents showed up in support of Ariemma. Some avoided the herd of video cameras, and most voiced their displeasure.
“This is getting blown out of proportion,” said Kendall Hernandez, who graduated from the high school in 2008. “People are just trying to get as much attention out of this as they can, and now we’ve got the media out here. They’re portraying our home, which has never had problems with racism, and we don’t want people to come here and think we’re racist.”
Alex Dege, who graduated in 2009 and previously took Ariemma’s history class, said his group picked a similar project to perform.
“We only wore white shirts or something like that, but one of our friends got upset,” he said. “We explained the project to her, and it was OK. This could have been solved with a simple apology.”
Tuesday afternoon, many local residents were hesitant to speak about their feelings on the issue, but a few said they considered Monday night’s meeting a step too far.
“I think it’s an overreaction,” said Tracy Pierce, who was working his booth at the farmers market off the Dahlonega square. “The teacher didn’t make the best judgement, but I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt anyone. You can’t talk about racism unless you talk about the KKK, but you also have to include the Black Panthers there. Many times, racism conversations are one-sided.”
The project was an educational experience and should be left to teachers and administrators to handle, Dahlonega resident Charlie Brooks said.
“It’s part of the history in this country, and as they say, if you don’t know it, you’re bound to repeat it,” he said. “... If the students were aiming to incite, that’s wrong, but I don’t see why they would think they wouldn’t get some response, black or white.”
As residents face the deluge of media in town, many are ready for the incident to blow over.
“We’re more proud of our (North Georgia College & State University) girls softball team going so far, rather than talk about this,” Rosa Brooks said with a laugh. “But school is almost out, and summer is close, so it’ll be over soon.”