By Joshua Benton, Scott Farwell, and Kristen Holland
Students at Highland Park High School dressed as gang members, rap stars, maids and yard workers this month during homecoming week – a tradition one Dallas civil-rights leader says is racially insensitive.
On senior Thug Day, students wore Afro wigs, fake gold teeth and baggy jeans. On Fiesta Day, which was to honor Hispanic heritage, one student brought a leaf blower to school.
“The scary part of something like this is you have to wonder how long these kids will continue to think this way,” said Bob Lydia, president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. “These kids will be leaders of this country one day.”
No students were punished, according to Highland Park High principal Patrick Cates. Fewer than a dozen students were asked to remove some of the clothing – bandanas and gold necklaces. The student with the leaf blower was asked to put the tool in his car.
Mr. Cates said the school’s leaders will monitor the student council’s selection of homecoming theme days in the future. Thug Day was not sanctioned by the school, but several students said seniors have dressed in gang-style and hip-hop attire for at least three years.
“The bottom line is that we need to maintain a healthy learning environment with no disruptions,” Mr. Cates said. “When a few students take the opportunity to dress up and use it to make an inappropriate statement, we have a problem, and we will address that problem.”
Helen Williams, the district’s communications director, said 18 students were sent to the office on Thug Day for inappropriate attire.
No students were pulled out on Fiesta Day.
Students interviewed outside the school Thursday generally thought the reaction to the theme days Oct. 3 to 7 was overblown and that the activities were not offensive to minorities.
“Thug Day’s been around as long as I can remember,” said senior Ben Paschal. “This is the first time people have gotten upset about it.”
Senior Katie Braden, who said she wore a LeBron James jersey that day, said she had heard that other high schools have a “Highland Park Day,” when students dress up to make fun of Highland Park students. She considers it all in good fun. “It’s not like we called it ‘South Dallas Day’ or anything,” she said.
Lauren Perella said she wore a “wife-beater” tanktop and tennis shoes with only one sock. “We’re just having fun,” she said.
Katie said the theme days had been a subject of conversation among students recently, and that she’d heard that some teachers were offended. She said the student who showed up with a leaf blower crossed a line.
“I thought it was funny, but that’s probably offensive,” she said.
Elizabeth Carlock, the senior class president, said there’s nothing racist about Thug Day.
“We had a ‘Country Club Day’ last year, and I don’t see any difference between dressing up in country-club style and dressing up thug,” she said. “We weren’t being racist. It’s Highland Park tradition.”
Elizabeth said she wore baggy shorts and a Portland Trailblazers jersey on Thug Day. She said a teacher demanded that she sign a form acknowledging that she was not following the expected clothing theme of the day, Western-wear. She refused and was sent to the principal’s office. “I wasn’t breaking dress code,” she said.
Some researchers say insensitivity is a direct result of the sort of racial isolation that exists in places like Highland Park.
“The reality is that they’re ignorant of the lives of nonwhites – it’s like a parallel universe,” said Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at Georgia State University who studies white perceptions of race. He has tracked the recent rise of racially themed events, such as so-called “ghetto parties,” on university campuses.
“You have a community of adolescents who live in a complete white bubble,” Dr. Gallagher said. Many Park Cities residents refer to their community as “The Bubble.”
“If they have interactions with blacks or Hispanics, it’s typically someone serving them a soft drink or the Mexican who cuts their lawn.”Highland Park High’s student body is about 94 percent white. The school has six black, 65 Hispanic and 32 Asian students.
Dr. Gallagher said the increasing frequency of ghetto parties is linked to the emotional distance young people feel from the civil-rights movement.
“They think America is colorblind and that racism has disappeared,” he said. “Color becomes a style – if a white kid wants to put on a FUBU shirt, he can do it. They can have something like this and say, ‘I wasn’t being racist – I was just playing with these symbols.'”
Elizabeth said both controversial theme days should continue, but that administrators should be more vigilant about sending home students who dress inappropriately.
“I apologize for the few students who were dressed inappropriately,” she said. “But we were not being racist.”