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Brooke County Board of Education Hears Opposing Views on Football Game Sign

Sign at Brooke football game at center of debate

Photo by Scott McCloskey Residents line the sidewalk outside the Brooke County Board of Education office Monday expressing their disapproval of Superintendent Toni Shute’s apology to Perry Traditional Academy over a sign displayed during a Sept. 22 Brooke High School football game.

WELLSBURG — With protesters outside holding signs calling for the removal of Superintendent Toni Shute, the Brooke County Board of Education Monday heard from residents on both sides of the controversy surrounding a sign displayed during a Brooke High School football game last month.

Shute has been criticized by a large number of residents for issuing an apology to Perry Traditional Academy, a largely black high school, for a sign displayed in the Brooke student section at the school’s football game against Perry. 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.

In a prepared statement Monday, board of education President Brian Ferguson said, “This board of education, our superintendent and our directors know this sign, because it was insensitive and intimidating to many in attendance and not in attendance. It offended members of this board, members of the Brooke County community and members of the Perry High School community.”

Ferguson said the sign was a violation of a state school policies that call for school districts “to maintain a climate that is free from harassment, intimidation, bullying, substance abuse and/or violence, and free from bias and discrimination.”

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Chris Byers, a parent of Brooke students, told the board he agrees that words matter and he believes the words in Shute’s apology were disrespectful to Brooke students.

In a letter to Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, Shute wrote, “On behalf of the Brooke County School System, I apologize for the insensitive, intimidating and offensive sign posted in our student section at (Sept. 22’s) game. The sign doesn’t reflect our true beliefs nor what we want to teach our children.”

Byers said Shute neglected to say initially that the students didn’t intend to offend anyone. He is among community members who believe Shute gave outside communities the impression Brooke students are racist and has left them targets of harassment or violence from others.

“I suggest a formal apology to students and the community would be a lesson in practicing what you preach,” Byers said.

The board also heard from Ashley Eby, president of Brooke High School’s student government, who said the students “sincerely and deeply apologize to those who were offended.”

But Eby said fellow students have told her they are frustrated they weren’t approached before the apology was sent.

She added some had considered a student walkout when news of the incident received national coverage.

The board heard also from Jack Newbrough of Weirton, who asked, “When in society did a person’s name become an offense?”

But Deidre Cochran, a former Brooke County resident, said, “Trump means division, separation and hatred” to her.

She said as a student at Brooke High School, although she was active in sports, she felt she wasn’t important because there are few black students or teachers in the county.

“There’s no diversity. You don’t teach it,” she said.

Carla Davis, a Wellsburg woman, 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.

Royal Mayo, a leader of the Steubenville branch of the NAACP, said it’s not unusual for an apology to come following an unintended offense.

“I think (Shute) did the right thing,” he said, adding Eby also apologized for the students. “There’s no need to attack a person for doing the right thing.”

After hearing from several residents, Ferguson read a letter from West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Stephen Paine supporting Shute.

After commenting on the county’s reputation for pride in its school district, Paine wrote that he’s confident Shute, the school district’s staff, parents and community members can work together to ensure a positive school climate and culture that respects everyone.

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