Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Kind of Town

  Marshalltown made national news headlines 2 weeks ago when the parents of high school junior Blair Van Staalduine publicized the news that their son had been suspended for the first three football games of his senior season for appearing in a social media picture dressed from head to toe in white clothing making the letter ‘W’ with his hands. The Van Staalduine’s say that Marshalltown High School Principal Aiddy Phomvisay concluded that the ‘W’ symbol in the picture was a ‘white pride’ symbol instead of standing for the ‘W’ as in the white clothing their son was dressed in as the school requested for ‘spirit week’.

  The story was first picked up by the local paper and then by Des Moines WHO-TV. Since the school district does not discuss matters of student discipline publicly the stories are told entirely from the Van Staalduine’s point of view. The father (Jerry) claimed that in a meeting with principal Phomvisay he was told that they were stupid and naïve to think that their son was not a racist. In the TV interview, the mother (Cathy) claimed that she was afraid that if Blair was falsely labelled as a racist he would have difficulty getting in a good college and hurt his scholarship chances. The parents have threatened to sue the school district unless the suspension is reversed and they receive an apology from Phomvisay.

Got the letter down pat...
but why isn't he dressed in white?
  The publicity this story received exploded when Yahoo News picked up the story (you can read it here) as written by the highly conservative website ‘The Daily Caller’. As expected, the Daily Caller put their own spin on the story, mentioning that they couldn’t imagine what ‘W’ symbol could be construed as racist and noting that the ‘quintessential small-town hamlet was 85% white and less than 3 percent black’ according to the 2010 census (not mentioning that the same census showed 24.1% of the population claiming to be Latino or Hispanic or that the public school population is 45% white according to or that two thirds of the students in the 'hamlet' receive free or reduced lunches. The website called ‘’ published Phomvisay’s email address and invited their readers to email their thoughts on this issue to him. A website called ‘’ made the story the subject of their Question of the Day and asked their readers if they would sue the school district. A search of Blair Van Staalduine will come up with dozens of similar articles and blog posts on this topic.

  There are a number of odd things about this story. If Cathy Van Staalduine didn’t want her son’s scholarship and college opportunities hurt by being ‘falsely labelled a racist’ why did the family publicize this story? No one knew that Van Staalduine had even been suspended for three football games, never mind what for. And having brought the matter into the public eye, why was the offending picture not made public also? The explanation was that the family was ‘saving the picture for the lawsuit’ but if the goal was to put public pressure on the school district for a reversal of the suspension and get an apology, wouldn't making the picture public helped towards that goal and how would making the picture public hurt the lawsuit? I asked a lot of students if there was a ‘W’ symbol that stood for ‘White Power’ or ‘White Pride’ or ‘White Whatever’ and was told that the ‘W’ probably stood for the white clothing Van Staalduine was asked to wear. I was also told that the swimming team (that Van Staalduine is a member of) has a habit of shouting “White Power” during their meets. I was also told that the girls swimming team was specifically told not to make a ‘W’ sign with their hands this year. And just to confuse matters, someone told me there was an African-American student in the alleged social media picture making the same ‘W’.

  I don’t understand why the Marshalltown School District is monitoring any student’s social media in the first place. I read the student handbook (Click here and you can read it also!) and the section on student conduct is very vague. There is a mention of ‘Display of racial bigotry, intolerance, etc.’ being a violation but no specific examples. The reach of where a violation of student conduct can occur is equally vague. “Conduct of students away from the school grounds is subject to school discipline if it directly affects the good order, efficiency, management or welfare of the school and its activities.” There is nothing specifically mentioning social media and certainly nothing about making a ‘W’ with one’s hands. Could a student that gives someone the finger while driving or wears pants so low the beltline is at the thighs or uses a bad word on Facebook be seen as being a poor reflection on the school and thus directly affecting the welfare of the school and therefore subject to discipline? According to these guidelines not only could those be violations but even criticizing any of those actions could be perceived as racist, bigoted, or intolerant and a violation as well. I originally thought that a lawsuit against the school disciplinary policy wouldn’t have a chance but with guidelines so vague that every disciplinary action is a subjective action I think a competent lawyer would have a decent chance of getting Van Staalduine’s football suspension lifted.

  The actual incident doesn't have a lot of interest for me but the media reaction has been fascinating. Right now the right wing media is having a field day with the story of the young white athlete being suspended from the football team after being told to wear white and happening to make the letter ‘W’ with his hands but if the case goes to court and the suspension is overturned or if the school voluntarily reduces or reverses the suspension I expect the left-wing media will research every utterance and post starting with the Van Staalduine family and circling outward until they have enough material to have their own field day writing about the racist-tolerant ‘quintessential small-town hamlet’ of Marshalltown and making Principal Phomvisay the victim.

  The situation had led to a lot of unwanted attention and could have been prevented at a number of points from the children not being told to wear a particular color to the children not making ‘W’ symbols to the adults having specific examples of forbidden hand symbols listed in the student handbook to Principal Phomvisay assigning detention or diversity training as opposed to the football suspension to the parents not using the media to publicize their frustration and just getting on with their lawsuit.

  I don’t know whether Phomvisay is a good principal or not but he has proven to be a gifted fundraiser, having helped garner 2.5 million dollars towards the renovation of the sports activity center/auditorium known as the 'Roundhouse' and grants for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math center) center as part of Project Lead the Way. He was also named 2014 School Administrators of Iowa Secondary Principal of the Year. I can’t imagine he foresaw this kind of reaction to the suspension. Without knowing if there is a history between Phomvisay and the Van Staalduines the suspension of the student for three football games seems to be an overreaction. If Phomvisay met with Van Staalduine’s parents without videotaping it or having a witness that was a grave tactical error since he cannot discuss what was said but the parents can put any spin on the discussion they want and paint him however they like. As innocent or racist or juvenile making a had sign with the letter ‘W’ was I think asking students to wear white or red or blue to show school spirit is equally juvenile. If Van Staalduine had been suspended for three swim meets I don’t think this story would have had legs but there is something about football that makes small towns go crazy and I imagine that Phomvisay underestimated the reaction to messing with king football. With his fundraising prowess and award Phomvisay will be able to pick and choose from a number of school districts that would be delighted to have him and I can’t see him staying in Marshalltown for very long. I can't imagine the there not being hard feelings no matter how this plays out and I suspect his fund raising abilities to be hampered as a result.

  Marshalltown received the All-American City award granted by the National Civic League in 2012 and was a finalist in 2014. I don’t think that this incident will hurt the town’s chances of being in the running in future years and it may even help since standing up against racism, bigotry, and intolerance are always popular social causes for these type of awards. The town’s ‘Not In Our Town’ campaign was widely lauded as a model for for other towns to follow. In fact, this entire incident may turn out to be a blessing in disguise by placing some of the towns other 'attributes' in the background.

  Aside from being an All-American City in 2012, did you know Marshalltown is the corpse abuse capital of Iowa? Just google the words ‘Iowa corpse abuse’ and right below the legal definition of corpse abuse is the news story from February conviction of Jeremy Gartin of murdering David Warnell at 502 North 4th Avenue (3 blocks away from the Kum & Go we take Daisy and Baxter for their beef stick treats) in an apparent drug deal gone bad. After shooting the victim in the head, Gartin and accomplice Max Nelson were either high on meth or had just watched an episode of CSI when they decided to hack off his teeth, fingertips, and tattoos in order to render the body unidentifiable. After calling the garbage company to verify the trash would be picked up that day, the body parts, bloody clothes, etc…, were put in garbage bags and left to be picked up, but in an ending straight out of Criminal Minds, the police beat the garbage company to the scene, the body parts were recovered, and the arrests were made.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade...When a wacko drives through your porch, make a wind break!

  And if corpse abuse wasn't enough to put Marshalltown on the map, we may also be Iowa's leader in porch abuse. Detailed statistics aren't kept on porch abuse but in April Jason Collins ran his car into his ex-wife's house and car and while he was at it decided to lop off the porches of two other neighboring houses to complete his 'triple play'. This happened just two blocks from my house and I got to see the results of Collin's porch rage when I walked Daisy and Baxter every few days. One porch was fixed right away but the other porch's roof was set up as a combination wind-break/privacy fence. This story didn't have near the legs of the 'W' story or the corpse abuse story which to me shows that there is a niche market for a porch abuse advocacy group that is waiting to be filled to raise the visibility of porch abuse in the social consciousness and to make people aware of this growing problem.

  When I lived in New Jersey I’m not sure which town was the leader in corpse abuse or porch abuse but in Iowa there is no doubt it is Marshalltown - that quintessential small-town hamlet I call home. When you live in the corpse and porch abuse capitals of the state I just can’t take some kid making a ‘W’ with hands very seriously. I’m hopeful the judges for the All-American City awards feel the same way.


Cheri said...

A friend sent me your blog posting: you make some good points. Please let me add some information, though. The Van Staalduine family are nice people--Canadians who have lived here for years (Jerry's job brought them here). Mr. Phomvisay is a wonderful man and has done a remarkable job at our high school, which is a mix of white, a large Hispanic population(due to our meat packing plant), Thai Dam (sorry if I've mis-spelled that)refugees from the 1970's, and a growing number of southeast Asian refugees (again, brought here by our packing plant). That is why he received the award. Two other boys were involved and received the same punishment, but what most people haven't taken the time to find out is that Blair has been involved in 2 other incidents of a racial nature. A high school coach has stated that the 3 boys admitted to him that they meant it as white supremacy sign (and the Van Staalduines claim is a lie0. Do I think Blair's a racist--no--but (as teenagers are prone to do) he seems to be making some poor choices. Both of my kids (young professionals)knew about the 'W' hand sign meaning white supremacy. The horribly scary part in all this has been all the social media response by people who don't know anything about Marshalltown and the situation. The Phomvisays received terrible emails, etc., including death threats. You mention he won't have any trouble going somewhere else, but it would be our terrible loss. It would be sad for Blair to lose chances for scholarships or acceptance to good colleges, but as almost all of us have learned the hard way, poor choices have consequences. A lawsuit might have a chance if this were the only incident...but those 2 previous incidences, I would be very uncertain about those chances. Blair isn't the victim of over-reaction by the principal, he's a victim of his own poor choices.

Hank Anzis said...

Hi Cheri,
I don't know the Van Staalduines or Principal Phomvisay. Thanks for putting in some background.

When it comes to sports and scholarships the predominant factor is the athlete's ability so if the young man can play he will get his scholarship, poor decisions or not.

J Vs said...

Your comments have alot of truth to them on both sides of the fence. It is a sad day however when anonymous perception provides the basis for punishment in our schools over true intent.

Blair was chosen by the school faculty to attend (and subsequently graduate from) the Iowa Valley Leadership program and also to attend American Legion Boys State, both honours for which he is grateful. Any stories about Blair being a racist are fabricated by persons unknowing of his true character. As a long time soccer player he has made life-long friends with kids from many ethnic backgrounds.

This could all have been avoided had the principal shown some common-sense and apologized for his actions. The School Board Policy 502.7 states, " The purpose of the Student Conduct Code is pro-active; to deter behaviors that violate the law". The suspension falls into an area that is not covered nor documented in that policy.

If student leaders are to be held accountable for their actions, should not the same be true of the administrators as well?

Best Regards

Hank Anzis said...

Hi J Vs.
Thanks for leaving a comment. I see in the paper that Blair Van Staalduine played in yesterday's football game. That as the third game so I assume the suspension was reduced to two games. I find it strangely disturbing that the same punishment was meted out for a high schooler making a 'W' with his hand and a professional football player being caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancée out of a casino elevator.

I think there is a lot of blame to go around. I don't know the young man, his family, or the principal. I would like to see the picture in question so I could see the 'W' in question. I'm not sure what purpose the football suspension served - it is obvious the young man doesn't understand how offensive so many people seem to find the 'W' symbol and he should have received some training in what people find offensive rather in place of or in addition to the football suspension.

If the parents didn't want this to be public, they should not have alerted the media - I had no idea the young man was suspended never mind suspended for what. Having gone public the family should have released the picture - not releasing it makes me think it must be offensive and they have something to hide.

I think the whole incident was a case of overreaction by all the parties. It's too bad this kid got caught in the cross-fire.

J Vs said...

Go to and find the July 17 MCSD board meeting. Start at the 55 minute time.

Hank Anzis said...

That’s a great video! The direct link is at When the T-R or the national media had covered this I wish they had shown the pictures that Van Staalduine put on display at the meeting. When there are dozens of students and school employees documented making the same ‘W’ with their hands it shows the suspension as capricious. As I wrote in my original post, the Marshalltown school code of conduct is so vague enforcement can be nothing but capricious.

I’m glad I finally got to see the picture with the children making the ‘W’. I agree it looks pretty innocent. Van Staalduine is right in that the school administration is only judging on perception and not intent, but I’m not sure that is anything new. ‘Spin doctoring’ has been around for at least three decades. In 1960, the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate was judged as being won by Nixon by radio listeners and Kennedy by TV viewers.

I don’t envy the Van Staalduine’s trying to prove their son’s NOT a racist. It is an impossible task - you can’t prove a negative. At my youth chess tournaments I’ve occasionally had people accusing me of being biased towards white kids in pairings and prizes and I’ve had some white parents not wanting to bring their kids to my tournaments because they think I’m favoring the minority kids. All that can really be don in that situation is to keep moving forward and not look backwards.

J Vs said...

Policy 502.7 states the purpose of the code of conduct is to proactively deter criminal activity. To accuse Blair of racial bigotry when he has been a competitive soccer player since he was very young is ridiculous. Add to that he was asked to prom as a sophomore by an Asian female friend also adds to his innocence. There have ben many rumors spread that do not have basis in factual information. The unanswered question is "why" were these boys singled out.

Hank Anzis said...

The newspaper article mentioned that Van Stauuldine had been warned before about making the 'W' sign. Was that a fabrication? I know the girls swim team was specifically warned about not making the 'W'.

J Vs said...

2 freshman were caught making the same sign as Wisconsin Badgers at a jr varsity meet that Blair was not at. That behavior had gone unnoticed for years prior. Yes there was a warning about that sign. Yes, Blair as captain answered honestly. The was no uncertainty about the consequence of making that sign or the chant again in the future. At the time it had been a variation of the power chant that many swim teams do, and even the bobcat cheerleaders do a bobcat power chant. It was a joke to get all teammates to participate regardless of race. When discussed as a team about the perception of the chant and sign Blair made sure it did not happen again.

The photo at the crux of this has 3 boys the other 2 did not receive such a warning. As you have seen there are other photos of students doing both signs in the time after. In just the past month I have seen a tweet by a student using #Asianpower that is still online.

Here are a couple of interesting links if you would like to do some additional research,49.htm

Hank Anzis said...

Those are interesting links although I'm not sure what they mean since the comments and article could describe most of the places I've worked at and most of my bosses and all of my bosses bosses.

The principal is a gifted fundraiser and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he is working a fast track to bigger and better things. I also wouldn't be surprised if the three suspended children were scapegoats to a higher ambition.

I was wondering about the warnings and it seems warnings were given. Van Staalduine’s parents said the 'W' was due to wearing white clothing. I doubt that explanation now.

Making the 'W' was (and is)immature and the punishment was equally immature. But there are consequences for actions. I with the Van Staalduine’s had the foresight to tape their meeting with the principal. If they had it would have put a whole different light on the incident.

J Vs said...

There were 7 witnesses besides the principal in the meeting when the comments were made. At least 6 of those people were appalled and astonished by the comments made by the principal. The 7th was a school administrator that needs his job.

Many incidents have recently taken place in the high school including social media blunders by staff and violent conflicts between ethnic groups. It is not the NHS students causing these problems.

Are you aware that our principal has not been in school since Oct 20, and may be on indefinite leave? Lots of rumors but no notice from the school district as to why.

Hank Anzis said...

I'm surprised none of the witnesses were interviewed for the newspaper story which made it sound very much like a private conversation. I would love to hear more about what the witnesses heard.

I knew the principal has been AWOL - luckily the sun keeps on coming up each morning. This is another store the local paper has dropped the ball on. It is very dangerous to allow students to attend school when there is the possibility of a race riot. It is scandalous to not make this public - to my mind this was putting public relations ahead of student safety. The Ames school board to cancel the football game in Des Moines where a rumored gunfight scheduled for the game was taken seriously enough to warrant a police investigation was the correct decision. Van Staalduine's lawsuit will look like small change if a school administration ignores the warning signs and allows a tragedy.

J Vs said...

October 6 school board meeting was all about how wonderful the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Support) programs were working.
Then by October 9th, all Hell breaks loose and on October 17th little more than half students attend high school, Oct 20th, the school is on lock-down (except it is not called lock-down).
Too worried about the statistics and not enough about what is really happening in the hallways.

J Vs said...

Attorneys seek to join lawsuit against district
November 18, 2014

An attorney for a Marshalltown High School student minor referred to as JS has filed a request to join the lawsuit against the Marshalltown Community School District already filed by fellow student Blair Van Staalduine.

Like Van Staalduine, this student was alleged by the school district to make a racist gesture in a photograph and was suspended for athletic contests.

"As far as the nucleus of the case, it all stems from the same photograph," said Barry Kaplan, an attorney for Van Staalduine.

During a hearing Monday, District Court Judge Jim McGlynn said he would defer a decision on the joinder request until more the discovery phase of the case is completed.

McGlynn also threw out a request by attorneys with the school district to dismiss the lawsuit altogether.

"I think there are still issues that have to be addressed," McGlynn said.

Hank Anzis said...

Good luck in the lawsuit. I'm not sure what what damage was done by the school district to the young men except missing two football games. Painting the students as racists could possibly be a lawsuit worthy issue except it was Van Stauuldine's parents that made it public. I expect pressure will be brought to bear on the principal to make some sort of apology in order to make this go away...

J Vs said...

People have been using the local newspaper as their information source, however it is often biased as this Letter to the Editor of the Times Republican points out.

A double standard
April 14, 2015
Jinita Boyd, Marshalltown

I attended the hearing of VanStaalduine vs the Marshalltown School District back in March. I would like to comment on the part that was not reported in the paper.
Briefly: 1) Blair VanStaalduine was on the swim team. The team was told to never use a certain "W" sign with their fingers which had become a tradition, even by minorities, as it could be interpreted as "white power"; 2) Another tradition, was school spirit week with each class assigned a color. Blair's junior class was assigned white. A picture of Blair along with other juniors dressed in white with a different "W" sign for the color white was found on social media. It seemed pretty innocent, especially since pictures of teachers and other students doing the same were shown at the hearing. Blair received disciplinary action.
On questioning of the administrators involved in meting out disciplinary action for racist conduct, (all administrators agreed Blair was not racist), some concerns about their conduct became apparent.
The athletic director, who took the initial disciplinary action against Blair, said the picture of Blair and classmates dressed in white was sent by an anonymous student calling it offensive. What was revealed was the picture was sent by the football coach as a question of violation of the good conduct code. He served on the good conduct committee but his identity as the source was never revealed.
When the athletic director and the superintendent of schools were asked if a black power sign or a T-shirt with Crazy Horse on it worn by a Native American or other minority racial signs would be seen as offensive, the A.D. said no and the superintendent said it would depend on the context. Yet, there was no allowance for Blair regarding the context of a "W" sign for his junior class color.
While under oath, the MHS principal denied yelling at or calling the VanStaalduine family racists when he met with them. Yet in the courtroom he lost his temper and pointed at Mrs. VanStaalduine calling her a racist, the cause of death threats to him and that as a minority he should not be treated in such a manner.
Evidently we have a double standard of discipline at our school. A code of conduct should be fair to all students. We need administrators who use common sense and are not intimidated by minority status.