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Student fashion sparks conversation about racism, free speech at Park Rapids school

Al Judson

PARK RAPIDS - In an attempt to combat racism and protect free speech, Al Judson inadvertently offended rednecks.

It all began for the Park Rapids Area High School principal Monday when he sent out a memo to his staff suggesting an open dialog about civil rights and racial discrimination.

The memo was prompted by some students wearing "Obama-08" T-shirts to school the week before. The school has a dress code governing the messages kids can or can't wear on their shirts, but politics is a matter of free speech, Judson's memo indicated.

The back of the T-shirts said, "Yes we can." When a group of students crossed that message out and wore their T-shirts saying, "No we can't," Judson let that pass, too, in the name of free speech.

But then the messenger - and the message - got a bit garbled.

"I also heard that someone had 'brown is down' on a garment last week in our school," the memo said. "That would be going too far."

Judson immediately heard from a faculty member that modern day vernacular considers the word "down" to be a cool thing, as in, "I'm down with that."

The baby boomer principal was chastened.

"The substance of it, the brown is down, one teacher said was actually a positive statement in today's youth culture," he said. "In my era, I took it as a negative comment. I didn't want to get into a racist type of thing."

But Judson's memo, after suggesting the classroom dialog on the weighty issues of tolerance and discrimination, continued into hilly territory. The messenger - and the message - plunged off the tracks.

"I know that we live in a red-neck area but we cannot allow this attitude to be open in our school," he wrote.

A self-professed, anonymous redneck took umbrage and mailed the Enterprise the memo along with the following comment: "I wanted to send this to you for your information," the tipster wrote.

"I find it interesting that he is addressing the issue of prejudice and then makes a remark that is prejudice. (sic) Is this the type of administrator we want guiding our teachers? Maybe we should start looking into his practices."

Judson said he "didn't mean to offend anyone personally" and wonders if the tipster is faculty, staff or neither. He's perplexed why someone would have taken an in-house memo to the media rather than discuss it with him personally.

The term redneck "was referring to a way of thinking about issues and is portrayed as this - everything I come up with as an illustration will get me in trouble," he said, stopping himself mid-sentence.

Judson said the larger message - rednecks aside - is that teachers and students have a duty to engage each other, to inquire into racism, its causes, and its effects on the oppressed.

He said if the student T-shirts had had derogatory comments about President-elect Obama's race or nationality, they would have violated student policy and likely caused him to send the students home for a change of clothes.

"We're a 90-some percent white student body with probably the same percentage of faculty," he said. "We haven't been exposed to other races other than Native Americans. But sometimes because we haven't been exposed to other races we aren't sure how we will react and we stereotype because of our lack of experience."

He said one of his jobs is "to present a climate in which people are unburdened from racist comments or promoting something that's illegal."

He's proud of school efforts to combat the use of alcohol, tobacco or drugs; to reject violence.

And he said the student handbook tries to strike a balance between a right to free expression, tempered by a right not to have fellow students engaging in inappropriate conduct.

"I have nothing personal against rednecks - no," he said with a laugh. "I said it, yes, but I didn't mean it in a derogatory way."

And he wondered how truly offensive his remarks were when comedians such as Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy promote and celebrate the essence of rednecks - to mainstream audiences.

"What is a redneck?" Judson questioned. "Is it a rebel? To my mind it's a backwards way of thinking, people who aren't open to another point of view."

And those other points of view are what Judson was trying to open his staff up to. His e-mail attached an article on racism for study and discussion. He fully understands that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The anonymous tipster called himself - or herself - a "Concerned Red-Necked Citizen."

"Any concerned citizen is welcome to come in to my office and discuss it - redneck or otherwise," Judson said.

And then, to avoid further harm, he added, "this is a self-described redneck."