“At this time, Patty Shelton still remains the cheerleading advisor,” Greenfield Exempted Village School Board President Doug Mustard said, then the 60 or so people gathered for the special board meeting erupted into applause and whoops of joy.
Friday’s special meeting was announced on Thursday, and on the agenda following an executive session was a resolution to terminate Shelton’s employment as the longtime cheerleading advisor for football and basketball.
The special meeting comes in the wake of controversy over a banner that was displayed Oct. 28 in Hillsboro where the McClain Tigers were playing a football game against the Hillsboro Indians. The banner displayed by the McClain cheerleaders read, “Hey Indians, Get Ready for a Trail of Tears, Part 2.” The reference to the Trail of Tears, which was the forced migration of the Cherokee nation in the 1830s where thousands died en route to land west of the Mississippi River, sparked widespread attention and criticism and led to hundreds of phone calls to school officials.
The next day, McClain principal Jason Potts issued a statement apologizing and saying the banner should have been reviewed beforehand and approved by the cheerleaders’ adviser. On Monday, Potts told The Times-Gazette of numerous steps the school is taking to educate students, including going to one of the several Native American sites nearby and volunteering. Other steps included students engaging in lesson plans crafted by the principal on the Trail of Tears, group discussions, a recorded audio message from a member of the cheerleading squad for students and staff impacted by the outcry, and the McClain and Hillsboro student councils meeting together to talk about the situation.
Potts was 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.
Jason Snively, the Hillsboro High School principal, said 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. “I honestly don’t believe it was meant out of hate for any culture,” he said.
About 60 people showed up in support of Shelton at Friday’s school board meeting, with several addressing board members.
Retired teacher Larry Chapman told the board that the banner was “based on ignorance.” But, he said, “This is a chance to get by that.”
“We have every responsibility,” he said, “to acknowledge … to say we understand, to educate ourselves. If we don’t do that, we’ll be back here again.”
He said the board had “to do more than fire somebody,” adding that the school was a teaching institution. “You’re here to teach, not to punish. This is a teachable moment,” he said.
Another attendee asked board members if they would proceed in the same manner if the banner had not garnered national attention. He asked how firing someone would fix anything. Then he reiterated Chapman’s point about the school being a teaching institution, adding that this was “an opportunity to teach and educate.”
A senior cheerleader stood, and through visible emotion pledged her support to Shelton. She spoke of the advisor’s endless devotion and support of the cheerleaders. She told board members, “If you have to punish someone, punish me.”
A female in the back of the cafeteria stood, saying that she believed there was “no malice” in the banner. She said it was a local matter, and she asked the board to not let “outside influences” have bearing on its decision-making once it was behind closed doors for an executive session.
An emotional Shelton also addressed the board, apologizing for the negative impression left on the school and community. She said, short of resigning, she was “willing to do whatever it takes to repair” the damage that had been done.
“It was obviously a poor choice,” she said of the banner. She said she saw it prior to the game, but that she didn’t know the meaning or the origin of the quote.
“When I found out, I was horrified,” Shelton said.
“In this day of sound bites and sensationalism” the banner has been turned into something that was never intended, she said.
Prior to the executive session, Mustard said board decisions are always made with the best interests of the students in mind. “We take it very seriously,” he said, adding that the board appreciated the input provided.
The executive session lasted about an hour, with Shelton joining board members at one point before returning to the waiting masses in the cafeteria.
The meeting was adjourned after Mustard announced that Shelton would remain in the advisor position.
Superintendent Joe Wills and Mustard declined to comment after the meeting.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.