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.