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'Harlem Shake' poses school safety quandaries across Twin Cities

  • Article by: Kelly Smith
  • Star Tribune
  • February 28, 2013 - 5:36 AM

The Harlem Shake is a hit with students, but it isn’t playing well at some schools.

As the latest flash-mob dance spreads across metro-area high schools, it has prompted suspensions and even police citations when deemed disruptive or a school safety threat. That’s leaving communities asking whether the viral video imitation is a harmless diversion or dangerous distraction.

In Eden Prairie, 16 high school students were suspended after a Harlem Shake dance in the school cafeteria that included jumping on lunchroom tables and turning one over. In Wayzata, 15 students were banned from the weight room after doing a similar dance there last week.

And at Mound Westonka High School, school leaders are still dealing with the backlash from suspending and citing six varsity hockey players before a playoff game because of a Harlem Shake rendition, with some students dancing on top of tables and chairs.

It’s a trend also seen in schools in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan, with a suburban Detroit school suspending more than 30 kids.

For school leaders, such episodes are part of the growing challenge posed by social media, forcing them to react to the latest online craze surfacing almost overnight.

“It takes moments, milliseconds [for a trend to spread],” said Don Johnson, a former principal and now head of a state group for middle and high school principals. “They happen more often and with greater intensity, which makes it hard to combat.”

Rowdy riot or fun dance?

The Harlem Shake has become an Internet phenomenon, with thousands of YouTube videos. Most feature one person dancing and, when the lyrics command to “do the Harlem Shake,” it cuts to a wild group dance.

While schools have long suffered through fashion or dance trends, Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the viral videos pose even more difficulty because of how quickly they spread.

“The whole issue of social media is a challenge because it is evolving so quickly,” he said. “Schools are trying to do the best to know what’s out there and how to incorporate that positively in the schools.”

He defended local schools’ disciplinary actions, arguing that safety has to be administrators’ top priority.

Westonka investigation

In Westonka schools, district leaders said Wednesday that an outside investigation will establish what happened at the high school last Friday and whether the consequences were appropriate.

Parents and students continue to criticize the district for suspending the hockey players hours before their playoff game, arguing that officials rushed to judgment after students did the dance in the cafeteria. A cellphone video shows students dancing on tables or chairs, but no damage was reported besides a broken lunch tray.

On Monday, the hockey players and two members of a school swim team saw their two-day suspensions cut in half. The $75 citations they got from Minnetrista police were rescinded and Superintendent Kevin Borg apologized to a crowd of 250 parents and students at a school board meeting, announcing that Activities Director Dion Koltes was put on paid leave.

But it’s too late to appease parents like Michelle Brandstetter and her 17-year-old old son, Jack, who say the penalties were a baseless overreaction.

“If anything, we’re more alarmed,” she said. “They’ve given us nothing solid to go by. ... We need an apology from the people who made the decision.”

She said her family and others want the suspensions off the students’ records, Koltes fired and apologies given from whoever made the decision to suspend the teens. Her son, a senior, was pursuing hockey after graduation and was looking forward to his last game. “There were scouts at the game,” she said, “but Jack wasn’t there.”

Mound Westonka lost the game, 6-4, to Blake.

Spreading to other schools

A week before Westonka’s incident, about 150 to 200 students at Eden Prairie High School did their own version of the Harlem Shake during lunch hour, jumping on tables in the cafeteria, even picking up and dropping a table. Sixteen of those involved got one-day suspensions for violating safety rules. District security staff “just intervene the best they can,” Eden Prairie spokesman Bob Noyed said, adding that the suspensions drew no backlash; instead, kids apologized.

At Minnetonka High, a school-approved Harlem Shake dance during a class break even included the principal.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib

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