July 2004

Letter criticizing MCHS athletics creates stir

By David Grant Long

Which is more highly prized at Montezuma-Cortez High School — academic achievement or athletic prowess?

A letter posing that question was considered so inflammatory it resulted in a student’s suspension. The incident has raised questions about the rights of students to criticize the administration.

Connie Foote, who graduated this spring, was suspended from one day’s classes shortly before graduation by MCHS Principal Byron Wiehe for “insubordination” when she refused to reveal who wrote the unsigned letter, which was being widely circulated and discussed among the student body.

The letter, written in a heavily sarcastic style, begins by “thanking” the school’s administration for supporting athletic programs because “sports have always been more important than learning” at MCHS. It also alleges that one athlete’s grades were modified to preserve his eligibility and that a coach used profanity in speeches.

The letter that shook Montezuma-Cortez High School

Editor’s note: The following is the content of a letter that was widely circulated around Montezuma-Cortez High School and caused a student to be suspended. A few small portions have been deleted to protect student privacy.

I would very much like to thank the MCHS administration for your support of athletics. Sports have always been more important than learning in an educational facility.... [The letter then refers to an athlete that allegedly took geometry three times and P.E. four times.] The education he received from that will be invaluable in life. I’m only glad that his grades could be modified by certain teachers in order to keep up his GPA. There is no reason for him to actually have to pass a class fairly like any other student....

We all know that our athletes are superior to all other students. This being the case they should be able to string six words together to form a coherent sentence. The next time this happens perhaps we could even allow him to shoot a basketball in order to demonstrate the valuable life skills he has developed throughout his high school career.

This obvious superiority among the physically skilled at MCHS is why I am so elated that no serious action was taken when our boys got slightly riled up at that game last year.

Everyone gets excited in a situation like that and besides the spectators are not an important part of the game and as such do not deserve respect. This is why I am so glad that this year our tradition be allowed to continue.

Any coach that can master the English language well enough to use such profanity in his speeches should definitely be rewarded. Of course [an athlete] should have the irrevocable right to get angry and kick a single measly drinking fountain off the wall. It is only school property paid for with taxpayers’ money. I can only hope that the money will not be taken out of the basketball team’s budget or from his own pocket but instead be taken away from other more educational pursuits.

I can also only hope that no real action, beyond the half-day suspension, which I’m sure was necessary to placate the public and/or school board, will be taken. As a valuable member of our basketball team he is above all that.

So it is because of your strong support of high school athletics that I wish to lend my support. After all, taking any form of sportsmanship out of high school athletics is nothing if not a worthy goal.

Basketball Fan 03

P.S. We must work to gain more support from the student body by doing things such as Hawaiian/50s day. It is important that we gain the support of every student in order to completely rid MCHS of any memory of good sportsmanship in athletics.

“This obvious superiority among the physically skilled at MCHS is why I am so elated that no serious action was taken when our boys got slightly riled up at that game last year,” said the letter, signed “Basketball Fan ’03.”

It alleges that a player, upset by a loss, kicked a drinking fountain off the wall of the high school and was only lightly disciplined.

School officials trying to discover the author of the missive contacted Foote.

“They (school administrators) were trying to track down where it came from,” Foote said, “and a lot of people said they’d heard that I had some (copies).

“So I got called in to the office, and they wanted me to tell them who wrote the letter, and whoever did, they wanted to suspend them and do this whole big thing — have them write a letter of apology and all this kind of thing

“And I just told them that it was none of their business, basically, although I didn’t put it like that -- I was polite and calm and nice to them.

“I told them I wasn’t going to say anything and so they suspended me,” she said. "They called it insubordination because I wouldn't tell who wrote the letter.”

She said Wiehe was unpleasant and derogatory while meting out the punishment.

“ I don't like him a lot,” she said. “He wasn’t very nice about it at all — he said I was acting like an ass, or something like that.”

Foote said Wiehe also tried to pressure her into talking by threatening to withhold any recommendation for college applications.

“Dr. Wiehe tried to trick me,” she said. “Basically he was just trying to make me say something by getting me mad.

He told me he wouldn’t give me a recommendation and he’d tell his counselors not to give me a recommendation for college. He was like, ‘I’ll bet you haven’t even applied yet, and if you don’t get a recommendation from us, then you probably won’t even get into college’.”

In fact, she said, she had already been awarded a scholarship to attend Colorado College in Colorado Springs this fall.

She said Wiehe also tried to tell her that the substance of the letter was not accurate, but wouldn’t provide additional information.

“Dr. Wiehe... told me if I was going to participate in something like this, then I needed to know the facts... and I could come to him and find out what the facts were.”

But when she asked him what the facts were surrounding the incident involving the water fountain and basketball player, she said, “He told me it was none of my business.”

Ryan Cooper, an MCHS student, wrote a letter to the editor in the Cortez Journal defending Foote's right to free speech and to remain mum about the author of the letter, even while he was also critical of its content, calling it “not particularly well-written.” But, he wrote, “It addressed some lingering malcontent that has pervaded the school with its supposed policy toward athletes, especially basketball players . . .”

Cooper told the Free Press he was still troubled by Foote’s treatment, maintaining the punishment was “way out of line” compared to penalties for other infractions of the school’s policies.

“There was this letter that went around (and) eventually made its way to the administration,” Cooper said. "Needless to say they were pretty unhappy about it and started asking questions.

"People said that Connie Foote knew who wrote it, so they approached her and asked... and she said, ‘Well, I’m not going to tell you’.” Considering this refusal as insubordination was absurd, according to Cooper.

“They (school officials) have kind of a skewed view of insubordination,” he said. “If you don’t do exactly what a teacher or administrator says all the time, then that’s insubordination and they can suspend you.

“So they suspended her for a day, which in my view is a flagrant violation of the Fifth Amendment (to the U.S. Constitution),” Cooper said. The amendment protects citizens from self-incrimination, although he said he didn’t know if Foote had anything to do with writing the inflammatory piece.

To his personal knowledge, he said, the allegations made in the letter about athletes were true, including the one about a player kicking a water fountain off the wall after a loss.

“The basketball team was playing Farmington and they lost at the very end, and (one MCHS player) has got a bit of a temper, and he kicked one of the drinking fountains in the freshman hall and just knocked it off the wall. He was suspended for only one day, so he could play in a basketball game two days later.

“Most of the stuff they said in (the letter) is pretty much right on the money as far as the facts went,” Cooper said. “They’re mocking (athletes) pretty bad, but all that stuff happened.”

Cooper said there is a widespread perception that athletes and certain other groups receive preferential treatment. “If there’s an athlete that will especially help the school team win, then they’re a lot more willing to let things slide than with the average Joe. I think there’s definitely some slack cut (for athletes) because there are a lot of people in positions of power... who are real sports fiends.

“Not to say sports people are the only ones who get slack cut for them,” he added, recounting that a band member who was caught with some marijuana was expelled at the very end of a school year and then allowed to register in the fall with no further consequences. Cooper said several members of another athletic team had been caught drinking with minimal consequences as well.

William Foote said his daughter’s suspension was totally uncalled for.

“I’ve read that letter, and I think it was just somebody blowing off some steam,” he said. “I think that the administration really and totally over-reacted to the situation — what they did was not right.

“I think there are a lot of kids who do a lot worse things than Connie did by not telling who wrote the letter,” he added. “You have to, in my opinion, admire someone who keeps their word.”

Stacie Gray, a friend of Foote’s who also graduated from MCHS this year and is college-bound, said she thought the administration’s treatment of Foote was “very undemocratic. Here we are fighting for education and freedom in Iraq, for instance, and here our school system is suppressing free speech. It's not very American.”

Gray said she, too, believed there was some special treatment of athletes at the school, at least in terms of funding. She said she was involved in speech and debate a couple of years ago “and I was just aware that our funding wasn’t near what the basketball’s team was.”

Re-1 Superintendent Bill Thompson could not be reached for comment because of a death in his family.

Wiehe did not return phone calls to his home and office.

English teacher Janet Chaney, who retired this year from MCHS and for five years was faculty advisor to the Panther Press, the school newspaper, said one of the paper’s staff brought the letter to class.

“He read it to the newspaper class and we talked about it,” Chaney said. “I told them they couldn't print it.” She said she had concerns about it possibly being defamatory, although it didn’t mention anyone by name, and also because it was unsigned.

However, the letter still caused a stir.

“One of the teachers was upset,” Chaney said, “and so they tried to figure out who it was that had written the letter. I do know that Connie was called in and asked to reveal the name, and I had heard that she didn’t and that’s why she was suspended.”

Chaney said she had no knowledge whether the claims in the letter about athletes receiving special treatment were true, and she doubted most other faculty members would know, either. “I can’t tell you the truth of any of those allegations. I can tell you that those rumors were going around, but I can’t tell you if they were true or false.

“It’s all hearsay. We (the faculty) don’t really know, other than from what kids have told us, who did what and whatever.”

Chaney said she would have liked to have seen some coverage of the letter and the issues it raised by the Panther Press, which has written about controversial topics in the past, but that the student reporters decided not to pursue the story. “This particular thing, they could have written an article about it, but they chose not to.”

Then the final issue of the Panther Press came out before Foote was suspended, “so there wasn’t a comment on that either, which was kind of disappointing,” Chaney said.

The previous year, she recalled the paper’s staff considered reporting on an incident involving the basketball team’s alleged unsportsmanlike conduct in Page, Ariz. “In that case (last year) they made a decision not to write about the incident after talking with a newspaper reporter back in Page. But they did write an editorial later when the basketball team played at home and behaved very well. They wrote an editorial talking about how, if the kids had misbehaved, they had learned their lesson.”

She said it would have been difficult, at any rate, for students to have ascertained the truth of the letter’s allegations because school-district policy protects student privacy. “They don’t give out information about individual students to students, and even if the newspaper kids had gone and asked those questions, they wouldn't have confirmed or denied them, I don't think.”

Jackie Fisher, president of the Re-1 school board, said she had heard about the incident involving Foote but that it had been up to the administration to handle it.

“It’s really not in the school board’s realm of responsibility,” she said. “There’s a term called micro-managing. As a school board, we work really hard to try to play our role and it would not be second-guessing what the administration does.”

Fisher said she had not seen a copy of the letter, but that the board believes in treating students fairly.

“As a school board we're working very hard to make sure that we establish policy that is fair for all kids and that if there is a consequence for an action, it’s not who you are or who your parent is, but is a result of a behavior so that anybody, no matter who they might be, would have the same consequence.

“We believe in being equitable and fair. Certainly we have had discussions about that - that all kids are to be treated the same, that there are no special populations.” She said the discussions had not been prompted by any particular incident or any feeling that there were students receiving preferential treatment.

She said there is a fairly tight chain of command among the school administration and board. “There is a perception that as a school-board member we have a lot of power. That's a real false perception.” The board handles expulsion hearings but not suspensions, she said, and doesn’t meddle in student issues.

She said suspensions could theoretically be appealed, but it would generally not help because most suspensions would have been served before the board would meet again.