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Westonka ends investigation into 'Harlem Shake' controversy

  • Article by: Kelly Smith
  • Star Tribune
  • May 7, 2013 - 10:27 PM

 

From now on, the Westonka School District won’t punish students for incidents until after an investigation is done — unlike the controversial “Harlem Shake” suspensions in February.

The decision Monday to revise district policies follows the Feb. 22 incident in which Mound Westonka High School students who did the then-viral “Harlem Shake” dance in the school cafeteria were suspended, causing six hockey players to miss a playoff game. That spurred a backlash from parents and students saying the district rushed to judgment.

In a note sent to all district families Tuesday, the school board said it directed Superintendent Kevin Borg and district leaders to complete investigations over discipline situations before punishment, even if it takes two school days after an incident. They also asked district leaders to revise policies to better define the relationship between police and the school and clarify consequences relating to co-curricular activities.

“While this concludes the investigation, we all realize it will take time before trust and confidence can be fully restored,” Borg said in a statement, apologizing to the community.

As for the students, an investigation concluded that, although they had permission to film a “Harlem Shake” video, they went beyond that, standing on tables and pushing and shoving each other as shown in a cellphone video. After community outcry, their two-day suspensions were reduced to one-day and $75 police citations were rescinded.

But the damage was already done, said Chris Niederer, whose three students play hockey but weren’t involved in the incident. After she attended Monday’s meeting with about 50 parents and students, she said she was disappointed administrators weren’t reprimanded for not investigating before suspending students.

“The whole investigation is costing us a ton of money that probably didn’t need to happen,” she said. “There was a clear feeling last night that there is a lot of trust and respect lost.”

A district spokeswoman wouldn’t disclose the cost of the investigation Tuesday, saying the district hasn’t been invoiced yet. The 179-page investigation, conducted by an attorney from the same law firm as the district’s attorney, took written statements from community members and interviewed six parents, eight students and 11 employees.

It’s not clear who suspended the students — only the principal and assistant principal have that authority. But much of the public heat was directed at then-activities director Dion Koltes, who later resigned. This week, high school baseball coach Jeff Peterson accepted the position.

The incident was the most visible “Harlem Shake” fallout locally last winter, but students were suspended at other Twin Cities high schools for doing the popular dance at school; other schools’ dances went without incident.

“This was just a school project that got unruly, but it was handled like a crime was committed,” said parent Scott Ellingboe, whose son wasn’t involved. “They [administrators] clearly knew they rushed to judgment. … They’ve talked a good talk at this point, but will they walk the walk? They’re under the microscope now.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib

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