An Oct. 30 incident in Peters Township already is being used as a case study in a Washington & Jefferson College course.
During a football game at the high school stadium, spectators noticed and photographed members of the home team’s marching band wearing black full-body suits.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, opposing Woodland Hills High School had 1,003 students enrolled as of October 2019, of whom 606, or more than 60%, were listed as Black or African American.
Some Washington & Jefferson faculty members have adapted the incident for a Foundations of American Education learning experience, “keeping all the details but not using the exact names of the institutions that were involved,” course instructor Ryan Bunting said.
“We wanted our students to begin kind of putting the pieces together as to why there would be such commotion about what was being noticed on the field prior to the game starting,” he explained. “We’ll follow up with them on Thursday about, what did they observe? What are some of the things in place? What could have been done differently?”
Students also have been asked for suggestions about implementing a healing process.
“We really want them to see that there’s a teaching moment in all of this, and it’s not about somebody being reprimanded,” Bunting said. “It’s about somebody understanding what was done and how could it affect other people, and what can we learn to make sure we do things differently moving forward from here.”
He and James Longo, retired chairman of Washington & Jefferson’s Education Department, spoke with administrators for the school districts involved to gain further information.
Bunting, who taught Washington School District elementary fifth- and sixth-graders for eight years and currently serves as high school assistant basketball coach, posed another question to his W&J students:
“How would you respond in order to make sure the school that was feeling victimized felt comfortable, even coming back and participating athletic- or academic-related in the future?”
What they come up with should be an especially important consideration, according to Longo.
“These are people who are future teachers, and they need to recognize they have a responsibility to either bring people together, enlighten people, or be in a cocoon,” he said.
A former public school coach and teacher prior to his 23 years as a W&J department chairman, Longo continues to field questions and concerns about educational matters in the region.
“When this happened, and I started getting phone calls and emails and texts about this, people in the community, white and Black, were very upset, hurt, confused and angry that this had happened,” he said about the Peters incident. “One of the questions was, how could this happen in 2020?”
As director of Washington Health System Teen Outreach, Mary Jo Podgurski probably was asking a similar question when a photograph of the suit-wearing marching band members arrived in her email.
After she received further information about the incident, she decided to organize a Zoom meeting for interested outreach program participants.
“Most of the young people immediately had a gut reaction that it wasn’t OK,” she recalled. “And the word they used the most when they talked was ‘respect.’ One person came right out and said, ‘That doesn’t seem respectful to me.’ That was the theme, pretty much, of the conversation.”
Another theme arose that came as somewhat of a surprise to her.
“This is a mixed group, in terms of race. Some of the white kids were more upset about it,” she said. “I think the people who expected something like that to happen were the Black teens. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time that they feel dehumanized.”
Podgurski also teaches at Washington & Jefferson, and she reported that her educational psychology students brought up the topic for discussion on Tuesday.
For his part, Longo has been urging continued conversation, for the sake of what he calls a “teachable moment.”
“It has to be addressed. Now, the question is, how is Peters doing it and what is Peters doing? They’ve assured me that they’re dealing with this,” he said. “I hope that there’s going to be a lot of listening from this.”