An open letter to the leadership of Forest Hills Public Schools

Superintendent Behm and Principal Passinault,

I am a parent of two students in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. I’m writing you regarding the behavior I witnessed of four Forest Hills Public Schools students at the Forest Hills Central vs. Ottawa Hills varsity football game on September 9,2016 at Houseman Field. It has left a a lot of members of my community unsettled.

We chose the GRPS for both the caliber of education my boys receive at North Park Montessori, Blandford, and City HS/MS for the rich socio-economic diversity in the student population. My wife and I see this context as one to equip my sons to meet people where they are, engendering a sense of camaraderie and community.

Attached is a photo I took of your four boys. They spent the entire game brandishing a ‘Trump for President’ flag, along with a ‘Betsy Ross’ flag–the flag of the original 13 colonies with 13 stars in a circle, costumed in other flags, running up and down the sidelines. They were also out in front front a predominantly white pep squad of maybe 100 students. Many of these kids were also regaled in combinations of red, white, and blue attire holding regular chants of ‘U-S-A! alternated with a call and response where the first part “Go Green” is shouted by one person and the response “Go White” is shouted by the FHC student crowd.

Sitting in the home stands across Houseman Field, it was a sight to both see and hear. Our group of parents consisting of various economic and ethnic backgrounds were there supporting our students in marching band while cheering on the predominately black Ottawa Hills football. We were all quite taken a back by these loud chants. The circumstance was made even more unsettling by these four boys brandishing these symbols of nationalism and white supremacy:

  1. A Trump for President’ flag–a candidate known for his tacit support of racist ideologies that is causing a great deal of concern in minority communities:
  2. The ‘Betsy Ross’ flag– a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal:

Your team, your coaches, your families were our guests, yet it seems many of your students are unaware of the negative impact these actions would have on members of our community in our home field. One could argue these boys are ignorant of the symbols they embrace and display–so they are just kids. That only goes so far.

Is it not the role of their parents, you, and your district staff to make sure they aware that their actions in this context could have negative consequences? Certainly they have the right of free speech, but is sharing such politically charged symbols actions and words at high school football game the right set of actions for this context?

After the game, a City HS/MS mother who is an immigrant from Chile, whose son attends school with my older son, asked me to do ‘something’ with my photo so I am contacting you to share these concerns from our parent community. I was compelled to honor her request by the expression on her face–the look in her eyes–it was startling to me, a white man in his early 50s. In that moment I witnessed the fear and anxiety of what a person of color must feel every time in the presence of such behavior.

I will be sharing this text online. You have my email and my contact details below, if you would like to speak further. I do hope you will speak with these students, their peers, and their parents.

This is an opportunity if we take it, to understand our places in the world and grow together.

With Regards,

Matthew Patulski