Ohio Valley Top 10 of 2017: ‘Trump Perry’ Sign Stirs Controversy

WELLSBURG — A sign displayed in the student section during a Brooke High School home football game Sept. 22 that read “Trump Perry” caused quite a stir — one that grew to receive national attention.

Some interpreted the sign as racially insensitive taunting of students at visiting Perry Traditional Academy, a largely black school in Pittsburgh, while others said it was merely an innocent play on words that was created as part of a patriotic theme for the game. The sign bore an image of the U.S. flag with the words “Trump Perry,” with yellow wavy lines above them some believe were intended to represent President Donald Trump’s hair.

But it was Brooke County Schools Superintendent Toni Paesano Shute’s reaction to Perry officials’ complaints that generated the most controversy.

Over the weekend after the game, Sheila May-Stein, a librarian at Perry, took to social media to express her displeasure with the sign.

“My mostly Black, inner-city school played this team (Friday) night & were confronted w/this. Sickening racism,” she tweeted.

That led to Shute sending a letter to Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, apologizing for what she termed an “insensitive, intimidating and offensive sign posted … at Friday night’s game.”

“The sign’s message does not reflect our true beliefs nor what we want to teach our children,” Shute wrote in the letter. “Policies were not followed by school administrators to ensure a climate free from bullying and harassment, and as a result people were offended in our home. We have a moral obligation to teach our children, and we will make this a teachable moment to instill the core values of respect and dignity for all.”

According to published reports, Hamlet said he spoke with Brooke school officials and the matter appeared to be settled.

“Since the presidential campaign, superintendents across the country have found themselves apologizing for the use of President Donald Trump’s name to taunt minority students,” Hamlet said in a statement. “After speaking with several individuals in attendance at the game, we have learned that despite the sign, no further incidents occurred and both teams displayed good sportsmanship towards each other.”

In the wake of Shute’s apology, area residents — including many parents of Brooke High School students — quickly expressed outrage, saying students and school staff did nothing wrong. They emphasized that the word “trump” also means “to defeat” and said they felt the superintendent’s apology portrayed the school’s students as racists. Some even called on Shute to resign.

Shute later released a second statement which focused blame more squarely on school administrators.

“When we offend or hurt someone, we apologize, even when we didn’t mean to offend,” the statement reads. “What occurred at the game (Sept. 22) was a result of a lack of guidance from our administration. I do not believe in my heart that our children set out to make others feel intimidated, yet that’s exactly what happened.”

The controversy came to a head during an Oct. 9 Brooke County Board of Education meeting, prior to which school district officials announced the board would release a statement concerning the situation. That statement, read by board President Brian Ferguson, said in part, “We have a great student body here in Brooke County, and we are proud of all of our students. As board members, we have the responsibility and duty to address the concerns of our guests and others who attend not only our football games, but all school-sponsored events at every level.

“As members of the board, we have a responsibility and duty to ensure our guests, fans and families feel respected and comfortable when they come to our facilities, just as you would want guests to feel in your home. We teach our children that words matter. This is a teaching moment because there are times when it is not about political correctness but about common courtesy.”

The board heard from residents on both sides of the issue. Some called on Shute to issue an apology to the students, while others said she acted appropriately.

Chris Byers, a parent of Brooke students, said the apology to Perry made the school’s students targets of harassment or violence from others. Just a few days prior to the meeting, Brooke County Sheriff Larry Palmer said he’d heard no reports of students being threatened.

Carla Davis of Wellsburg said those not offended by the sign don’t understand the experiences of minorities. She said her own experience includes her daughter and other black students being harassed by students wearing Confederate flags at the high school about 20 years ago.

Ashley Eby, Brooke High School student government president, told the board that students were willing to apologize if the sign offended anyone, but she felt the students should have been approached before a formal apology was sent.

In October, Eby appeared on CNN to discuss the issue with Michael Smerconish. She said she didn’t believe those who created the sign were thinking about the demographic makeup of Perry when they made it.

“We would have had the sign regardless of who we were playing, because it didn’t cross our mind that it would be taken that way. It was merely a play on words — as in ‘beat,’ and the president of the United States — given that it was a patriotic game,” Eby told Smerconish.