A teachers’ union said it “cannot be convinced” children will safely return to school after the mid-term break in light of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the community.
On Monday, the Government announced the country was moving to Level 5 of the Living with Covid plan, under which schools will remain open, from Wednesday.
Speaking at the announcement on Monday night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was “necessary” to keep schools open to avoid young people’s futures becoming “another victim” of Covid-19. The advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) also recommended schools remain open for the six -week period.
However, John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, said the Government’s approach to testing was “shambolic” and there were now eight or nine days to prove schools were safe.
“Back in March the Government made the right decision to close schools, we worked so hard to reopen schools, but three months on I cannot be convinced by Micheál Martin’s comments last night that the children will be returning after Halloween to a safe school and of course it’s vital that their education continues, but it’s even more vital for their families that they will remain safe,” Mr Boyle told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.
“Will parents put their children on the bus? Will teachers who are pregnant or teachers who have underlying health conditions, will their doctors allow them back into schools when the virus is so high in the community that Dr [Colm] Henry stated a couple of days ago that it is a great threat to schools.”
He said “the shambolic approch of public health to the tracking, to the testing and the surveillance of our sector is going to be sorted out before the first Monday in November”.
The teachers unions will be meeting with Nphet today, Mr Boyle said, and they are prepared to work with public health officials to ensure schools were safe, but he had concerns about the data to date and exactly how many children and teachers had contracted the virus.
Kieran Christie of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, said there was a lot of anecdotal evidence of long delays in contact tracing after cases were identified in schools.
The union will be balloting its members as the union needs to be in a position to “react with agility” if they need to take action. “We want schools to open, but we want them to open safely,” he said.
Mr Christie said he needed to be convinced but that the evidence was sparse. “What we are seeing on the ground is different from the pronouncements.”
However, speaking on the same programme, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said “schools will be back” after the break.
“It’s really important that people understand that schools will remain open. Where concerns are raised by teachers, of course they will be addressed,” he said.
“This Government respects teachers and the work they’re doing because our kids and their education is absolutely vitally important. Everything we are doing, and one of the things we are doing, is to make sure our kids and our young adults continue to get education and continue to go to school.”
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) confirmed that a student had tested positive for COVID-19 on the first day back for in-person classes for many secondary schoolers.
According to a letter sent to parents shared with the Star, the York Memorial Collegiate Institute announced Thursday that one of their students had tested positive for the virus.
“We have no reason to believe there is any cause for concern for students and their families as this student was very briefly at the school on Monday, was not at school today and will not return until cleared by TPH,” wrote Donna Drummond, principal of the public secondary school, in the letter.
As of Thursday, eight schools have announced COVID-19 cases in the Toronto region. All have one case each. Seven are staff members, and one a student.
TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told the Star that, while Toronto secondary schools are opening their doors to all students on Thursday, students in Toronto’s Special Education Congregated Sites and Intensive Support Programs began their classes earlier on Tuesday.
The affected student went to school “briefly” on Monday before the start of full-time classes, Bird said.
The school is “working closely with Toronto Public Health (TPH) with regard to this case,” according to Drummond’s letter.
“As a precaution, an enhanced cleaning was conducted in the impacted areas but no further steps have been advised by TPH at this time,” Drummond said.
However, because the case was discovered before the first day of class, parents won’t be getting a letter from Toronto Public Health, she continued.
“We just wanted to let you know about this particular case as it must be reported to the Ministry of Education and Toronto Public Health.”
Alexander Brown, chair of the TDSB, said it’s not unexpected that there is a student case of COVID-19, and said the board continues to follow Toronto Public Health’s lead.
Local health units have the power to shut down schools if there are multiple, linked cases. That happened in Renfrew County on Wednesday after three staffers contracted the virus, forcing Fellowes High School in Pembroke to close until further notice.
Given the higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in urban centres such as Toronto, “parents are worried ‘is there going to be an outbreak at my school?’ Brown said. “Our concern at the TDSB — and it’s the concern of every board — is to keep the health and safety of kids and everyone in the building our priority, whatever that takes.”
Experts said earlier that it’s expected for schools to report COVID-19 cases as soon as they reopen. This doesn’t indicate in-class spread, but rather community cases from before classes reopened.
Earlier in August, several Ontario teachers unions advocated for smaller class sizes, including plans to shrink elementary classes down to 15 or 20 students. However, the Province struck down the idea.
Leslie Wolfe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, told the Star: “I’m concerned for the wellbeing of students. I’m very concerned for the wellbeing of the adults who work with the students,” she said. Several of her union members are older, she continued, and Wolfe is “concerned for their health.
“I don’t think anyone will be surprised at the fact that there is a student case in the city of Toronto,” she said. “And I expect this will not be a one-off.”
The long term risks to children if they miss even more time at school – versus the risks of re-opening classrooms again – and the huge challenge faced by teachers and parents in trying to keep them safe.
A new study by Public Health England has suggested the chances of transmission within schools is low – but teaching unions want the Government to come up with a Plan B if there’s another wave of infections.
A Texas school district ordered two Black high school students not to return to school unless they cut their locs.
On Monday a federal judge blocked the school from carrying out the suspension of one of the young men, Kaden Bradford, allowing him to return to school without cutting his hair.
Barbers Hill Independent School District is majority white and has refused to change its dress code, which is deemed racist by many.
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A Black Texas high school student is allowed to return to class this year without cutting his locs, a Federal judge ruled Monday.
Kaden Bradford and his cousin De’Andre Arnold made national headlines in January when they were told by the Barbers Hill Independent School District that they couldn’t come to school unless change their appearance.
Their families sued the district in federal court in Houston, claiming that the schools dress code, forbidding long hair, is unconstitutional as discriminates based on race, sex, and is in violation of freedom of expression.
While the case is ongoing, US District Court Judge George Hanks issued a preliminary injunction that orders the district to allow Bradford back without changes to his hair.
Arnold had transferred to a different school for the end of his senior year.
“The court’s granting of our request means that K.B. no longer has to endure an unjust and educationally-damaging in-school suspension simply for having uncut locs, which are an immutable part of his Black identity and cultural heritage,” his attorney Ja nai Nelson, of the Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement.
Hanks’ memo notes that data reviewed by attorneys show that Black students at Barbers Hill High School were three times more likely that their white classmates to lose at least one day of instruction because of the hair policy. The data also showed that Black students who were placed in in-school suspension lost an average of 3.5 days of class, which which students lost an average of one day.
“In other words, there is credible statistical evidence in the record showing that African-American students were more likely than white students to be punished, and to be punished harshly, on account of the hair-length policy,” Hanks’ wrote in the injunction, which was viewed by Insider.
Hanks also said that Kaden showed “a substantial likelihood” that his rights under the equal protection clause and the First Amendment will be violated in the injunction was denied.
The district’s hair policy requires that male students not have hair that extends past the collar, earlobes and eyes.
Students used to be able to keep their hair long, but comply by the dress code by wearing it up. In 2019 the school board made the code more stringent, requiring that that the hair has to be short even if it was pulled back, according to court documents.
Attorneys for the teens had previously argued in front of the school board that the policy was racist and should be changed.
Barring certain natural hairstyles, such as dreadlocks and braids, can be discriminatory,as many of those styles hold cultural and historical meaning.
Arnold, whose father is from Trinidad, started growing his dreadlocks in seventh grade as an expression of his Black and West Indian heritage, Courthouse News Service reported.
“West Indian cultural traditions specifically prohibit cutting or trimming locks and locks will unravel if they are cut,” Christina Beeler, a staff attorney at the University of Houston Law Center’s Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project, told the Barbers Hill Independent School District’s board last month.
Despite her argument, and outrage over the school policy, the board voted in July to keep it in place. The superintendent didn’t immediately return a request for comment from Insider.
The story of a small Texas town digging its feet into a policy over how young men wear their hair has drawn celebrity attention.
Earlier this year, Ellen Degeneres and Alicia Keys surprised Arnold with a $20,000 scholarship on “The Ellen Show.”
He also attended the Oscars as a guest of the producers and director of “Hair Love,” an animated short film about a Black father doing his daughter’s hair.
Before Leah Freeman’s body was found outside of her hometown of Coquille, Oregon, in 2000, her gym shoes, one of them bloody, were virtually the only physical clues police had to figure out what had happened to the missing 15-year-old.
Nearly 20 years later, one of those same shoes has played a key role in freeing from prison the only person who has ever been convicted of killing her: Freeman’s high school boyfriend Nick McGuffin.
To this day, no other arrests have been made in Freeman’s case.
“That’s the reason why I’m here…to keep Leah’s name in the light. To bring her name forward, to get somebody to come forward with the truth of what happened. To get resolution for myself, for her family,” said McGuffin, who is now 37.
“I’m an innocent person,” he added. “They found…vindicating DNA evidence that finally shows what I’ve been saying for nearly 20 years.”
Watch the full story on “20/20” Friday, Feb. 28, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
McGuffin was a high school senior when he and Freeman, a freshman, were dating.
“I asked Leah if she’d go to the prom with me,” he said. “She had a gorgeous white dress, she had her hair done perfectly… I’m glad we went and got the pictures that we did together.”
But Freeman’s mother, Cory Courtright, had concerns about their relationship. In a 2010 interview with “20/20,” she said she thought McGuffin “seemed like an OK kind of guy,” but she said their age difference bothered her.
“I found out that they were being sexually active, and that was disturbing to me,” Courtright said at the time. “It caused some conflict between Leah and I…because she wanted him to be her boyfriend and I didn’t.”
On the night of June 28, 2000, McGuffin dropped off Freeman at her friend Cherie Mitchell’s house with plans to pick her up a couple of hours later for a double date.
Mitchell said she and Freeman got into an argument about how much time Freeman was spending with McGuffin. She said that Freeman, who was upset, took off on foot after storming out of the house.
“I followed her out to the road and that’s when I told her, ‘It’s just, it’s not about you,’” Mitchell told “20/20” in a 2010 interview. “He was trying to take her away and take her away to do things that I wasn’t really welcome [to join].”
When McGuffin came to pick up Freeman at around 9 p.m., Mitchell told him that Freeman had already left. Freeman was last seen walking alone near her high school in downtown Coquille, according to witness testimony, but she never made it home.
McGuffin said he drove around for hours looking for her.
“I went back to Fast Mart probably five or six times,” he said. “There was different people there every time… They didn’t see Leah. I didn’t see Leah.”
McGuffin said he spoke to police officers on two separate occasions that night as he drove around in his 1967 Ford Mustang. The officers had pulled him over for having a broken headlight.
After the second time, McGuffin said he asked his friend at the time, Kristen Steinhoff whom he said he had run into earlier, to help him look for Freeman. He said he and Steinhoff drove around for about an hour or so in her car.
“I dropped Kristen off. … I think it was around 2:00 [in the morning], probably. I decided to go by Leah’s house one more time,” McGuffin said. “I saw a glare on her window, thought it was her TV. … It was 2000. It’s not like she could send me a text. She couldn’t call me on a cellphone. So I thought she was home, and I went home after that.”
The next day, when Freeman hadn’t turned up, her mother and McGuffin went to the police, who initially treated the 15-year-old’s disappearance as a runaway teen case.
“I knew something was wrong,” Courtright told “20/20” in 2010. “Again, this girl had no reason to run away.”
The night she went missing, a mechanic found and picked up one of her gym shoes by a cemetery near the high school. He believed it may have belonged to one of his kids – but days later, realized it may be connected to the missing girl and turned it into police. Her other shoe was found about a week later, outside of town – with blood on it.
About five weeks after she disappeared, on August 3, 2000, Freeman’s decomposing body was found on a steep wooded embankment, eight miles away through back roads from where the first shoe was found.
When he heard the news, McGuffin said, “It was like my world was over.”
“I broke down,” he continued. “That’s the saddest moment that I’ve ever gone through.”
McGuffin said he voluntarily went to the police to be interviewed and turned over his Mustang in hopes it would help with the investigation.
“[I] tried to give them any information that I knew that may be helpful,” he said.
After his initial meeting with police, McGuffin said he was called in again for questioning. He allowed officers to take photos of him, and later learned that they were checking for defensive wounds.
As time passed, the case went cold. McGuffin said he tried to move on with his life, but that he wasn’t able to grieve for Freeman while people suspected he was responsible. With public perception turned against him, he also said it was “hard to go out in public.”
“You’re basically looking over your shoulder to try to figure out who’s gonna come around the corner, who’s gonna start yelling at you,” he said.
Within two years after her death, McGuffin said he was hospitalized for anxiety and tried to end his life.
“It was just a buildup… It’s like when a tea kettle boils and it starts to make that hum, that’s what it was like, you just get an overload,” he said.
Eventually, McGuffin found a passion for cooking and graduated from culinary school, later becoming head banquet chef at The Mill Casino in North Bend, Oregon. After starting a new relationship, he had a daughter in 2007. He said she brought a sense of renewal into his life.
“I was very excited that I was gonna be a father,” he said. “My daughter helped me through a lot.”
As the years dragged on, police could not make any arrests in Freeman’s case, and the small community of Coquille — a town of about 4,000 residents — became more furious that her killer hadn’t been caught. Freeman’s mother, especially, was upset the case remained unsolved.
In 2008, the town got a new police chief, Mark Dannels, who pushed to have the case re-examined.
“When I arrived in Coquille…everybody was talking about the Leah Freeman case. And one of the expectations as a new police chief was, ‘What are you going to do about it, chief?’” Dannels said. “That’s pretty uncommon, number one, to have a 15-year-old teenager killed in a small community town like that. So you can see where the people were upset. Why hadn’t this been solved? And the more I looked into it, the more I felt I had to do something on this case.”
Dannels assembled a team from across the state to organize and consolidate all the old files and re-examine the case with fresh eyes.
They were surprised to discover how scattered the evidence was, with some of it even as far away as Scotland Yard in London, where it had been sent years ago for testing. Police also discovered rolls of undeveloped film from the original investigation, and spent months working overnight just to figure out what evidence they had to start to reinvestigate the case.
Coquille Police went back through the evidence, interviewing hundreds of witnesses, combing through old witness statements — including McGuffin’s — and retesting old evidence to re-examine it with assistance from the new team of forensic experts.
“When they reopened the investigation…I just figured the truth will come out and the real person or persons would be found. And so, yeah. I mean, I didn’t see any of this coming,” McGuffin said, referring to his eventual arrest.
During this round of investigating, police questioned Steinhoff, the friend who helped McGuffin look for Freeman on the night she disappeared.
Steinhoff told authorities that McGuffin had stopped by her house around midnight, they had done drugs, and when he then tried to have sex with her she says she told him to stop.
McGuffin admitted that he did smoke marijuana and kissed Steinhoff that night, but he said everything else she claimed wasn’t true.
“The things Kristen and I did that night, when we were kissing, was wrong. I accept that,” McGuffin told “20/20.” “It doesn’t mean just because I did that…that I didn’t care about [Leah]. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.”
After hearing from more than 100 witnesses, a grand jury returned an indictment against McGuffin. He was arrested on Aug. 23, 2010, and charged with murder.
At McGuffin’s trial in July 2011, a witness said he had seen McGuffin and Freeman together some time after she left Mitchell’s home. The prosecution argued that the couple quarreled and when it turned physically violent, McGuffin killed her.
McGuffin claims he never saw Freeman after he dropped her off at Mitchell’s home at 7 p.m. that night.
Ten of the 12 jurors voted to convict McGuffin on the lesser charge of manslaughter instead of murder. At the time, Oregon was only one of two states that allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal felony cases.
“My trial came down to people’s words,” McGuffin said. “My story has really never changed.”
McGuffin was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he first spent at Snake River Correctional Institution before being sent to a labor camp in Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest due to good behavior.
Steinhoff died five years after McGuffin’s conviction.
In 2014, after McGuffin had been incarcerated for four years, attorney Janis Puracal decided to take up McGuffin’s case.
During her review, Puracal said bombshell evidence was revealed — an unidentified man’s DNA on Leah Freeman’s shoes — that eventually led to McGuffin’s conviction being overturned.
When Freeman’s shoes were first tested in 2000, the Oregon State Police crime lab discovered something that DNA technology 20 years ago could not conclusively characterize. They did not mention it in the official report.
“At the time, we used interpretation guidelines that didn’t necessarily discern or distinguish really low levels of DNA,” Chrystal Bell, Forensic Services Division director for the Oregon State Police, told ABC News. “As a result of that, the analysts at the time chose to be very conservative and chose not to actually call out that potential male DNA because she couldn’t decide what it was. So she made no conclusions or statements about that DNA because it was at a very, very low level.”
At the time, Bell said, it was entirely up to the analyst’s “discretion over what they were going to report.”
When McGuffin went to trial in 2011, the DNA technology had advanced enough that the sample could have been re-analyzed to determine that it was a man’s DNA. But no one connected to the case had asked for retesting because they had no idea the sample existed.
“Had they asked us to re-examine that evidence, we would have done so,” said Bell of the Oregon State Police crime lab. “We don’t always have an automatic trigger to go back and do re-examination every time we get additional evidence, whether it’s two years later or five years later or 10 years later.”
In 2017, however, Puracal made that request.
“Finding that exculpatory DNA on the shoes, that was a huge moment for our case,” Puracal told “20/20.” “That was a game-changer for us. We were looking for DNA that would tell us who actually committed this crime. And here, there was DNA of some other man on the victim’s bloodstained shoe … and never reported. That changed everything for us.”
“I was overly excited to find the DNA,” McGuffin added. “It didn’t match me. … I told my attorneys, I told Janis, ‘Let’s go find out what happened… Let’s solve this case once and for all. I mean, that was my push.”
Judge Patricia Sullivan agreed with Puracal that the revelation of this DNA was a game-changer. In December 2019, she ruled that there is a “reasonable probability” that McGuffin’s guilty verdict would have been different had the presence of the unidentified man’s DNA been disclosed to law enforcement, prosecutors and the defense.
“However, without the DNA evidence, Trial Counsel was reduced to showing that (Nick McGuffin) could not have committed the crime and was not able to produce any evidence of an alternative theory,” wrote Judge Sullivan.
The judge set aside McGuffin’s conviction and remanded it back to the trial court.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier told “20/20” he decided not to seek a retrial for McGuffin for several reasons, including the lab’s report, the fact that key witnesses had died and the jury had been split on the verdict, and Courtright’s wishes.
“She just flat told me, ‘I cannot take the strain of another trial. I can’t do it,’ and she asked me not to try the case again,” Frasier said of Courtright. “That was probably the biggest factor.”
“Nick’s already served, 97 percent of his sentence,” Dannels said. “So we go back, put this all back together, retry it. You put the family back through this again. For what? To say we were right?”
Nine years after he was convicted for a crime that he has always maintained he never committed, McGuffin was able to walk out of prison a free man.
“I just knew that we had to fight and we had to fight for what’s right,” McGuffin said.
However, Judge Sullivan also said in her ruling overturning the conviction this did not demonstrate his innocence.
“There have been cases in the United States where the evidence clearly shows, beyond any doubt, that the person in jail or prison didn’t do it, and that person needs to get out. That’s an exoneration, in my book,” Frasier said. “What happened here was [McGuffin] was ordered to [get] a new trial. I made the decision not to go forward for a new trial. I still stand behind the investigation of this case… There’s evidence in this record to find this defendant guilty. But we have decided, for a variety of reasons, not to go forward at this time. It’s not that I believe he’s not guilty or innocent, it’s I believe it is not appropriate to proceed.”
Puracal said it was “disappointing” that police and prosecution “continue to say that Nick is guilty in this case.”
“The Department of Justice could have appealed the post-conviction court’s ruling and they chose not to,” she said. “It’s important to recognize where the DNA was found. The DNA was found inside Leah’s shoe as well as outside Leah’s shoe. And it’s found in and around bloodstains on her left shoe. That’s important to know.”
In the weeks since his release, McGuffin has tried to piece his life back together.
“After my exoneration…I had an idea of what it was going to be like, and I was wrong. It’s not easy. It’s actually really hard,” he said.
“[The] D.A., law enforcement, a crime lab…should have some accountability for what they did,” he added. “All I’m asking is for accountability and for them to do their jobs properly.”
“There are not enough markers to put it into the database to see if we can identify somebody that way,” Frasier explained. “If we have a suspect, we can get a DNA sample from them send it in and have them compare it. And that’s what we did with the other potential suspects in the case. And they all came back as not being the donor of that DNA.”
The central problem is that even though authorities now definitively have a sample of male DNA, the sample is so small that it can only exclude matches, but it cannot be used to confirm there is a match with a suspect.
“[The sample] is not suitable to put into the FBI’s database for forensic samples and convicted offenders,” Bell added, “The quality of the DNA was not good enough in 2000, it was not good enough in 2010, and it is still not good enough.”
Today, McGuffin is doing his best to reclaim his life, getting accustomed to keyless cars and talk-to-text on a smartphone. He’s also working on re-establishing his relationship with his daughter, who is now 12.
“I look at her with the strength that she has at her age, I think that helps me,” McGuffin said.
Even though his conviction was overturned, McGuffin said finding a new job has been difficult, which has been hard on him because he said he was looking forward to resuming his career as a chef once he was released.
“It’s not an easy feat. The stigma, even now, trying to get a job. … I want to work. I’m passionate about my career,” McGuffin said. “I remain an innocent man. That’s not going to change.”
McGuffin said he still thinks about Freeman and the life she could have had.
“She should be, what, 35 now? … She would have had a family,” he said.
Now that he’s out, McGuffin said he is determined to fight for the truth for Freeman and get answers as to who killed her.
“I want people to come forward with the truth. I just want the truth. I want to know what happened,” he said. “[We] have a chance right now to clean the slate to make it right. I mean, I’m pretty sure a lot of people would want that. I know Leah would. I know her family wants that. I want the truth for them. What more can I ask for?”
A Vancouver Island school district is embarking on what could be a difficult exercise to rename an elementary school named after a long-serving, controversial former municipal, provincial and federal politician.
The Alberni School District in Port Alberni, B.C., is setting the stage for a public consultation to rename A.W. Neill Elementary School, named for Alan Webster Neill, a former mayor, member of the B.C. legislature and a federal MP who represented the area in the House of Commons from 1921 to 1945.
Neill, known as and advocate for a blue-collar workers, an early backer of the Canada Pension Plan and a supporter of unemployment insurance, was also considered racist for his efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants, his support of anti-Chinese laws in the B.C. legislature and his approval of Indigenous residential schools.
First Nations’ students successfully petition B.C. government for provincial park name change
Neill’s own home in Port Alberni included a restriction that it could never be sold to Asian people. He died in 1960 at 91. The home’s covenant was removed earlier this year.
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“In my opinion, his behaviour and his beliefs were so heinous that he doesn’t deserve a spot on a main plaque on any public building,” said Rosemarie Buchanan, a school board trustee who spearheaded a failed 2017 attempt to have the city council drop the name of Neill Street.
“To think we were sending children to a school named after somebody who was an Indian Agent, who believed the residential school system was good for kids,” she said. “He said the Japanese people were a cancer.”
The district’s school board said in a statement last month it is considering a name change for the school.
“In the Alberni Valley, much discussion has taken place about the values and actions of A.W. Neill and whether or not A.W. Neill Elementary School should continue to bear this individual’s name,” said school board chairwoman Pam Craig.
She said board trustees propose A.W. Neill elementary become either Compton Elementary School or Kitsuksis Elementary School.
Prof. Reuben Rose-Redwood, a social and cultural geography expert at University of Victoria, said there is a long, worldwide history of renaming places, including cities, streets and public squares. He cited the Soviet Union as an example of a country that underwent extensive name changes.
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Victoria’s council approved the removal of a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, from the front entrance at city hall earlier this year.
“It speaks to what do we in the present hold as our values of who we choose to honour from the past,” he said. “How can we constructively engage with the past in the present to create a better future.”
He said the debate about to unfold in Port Alberni is healthy.
“We often learn our history, not by having monuments there, but by the debates that arise from people who suggest we should remove monuments.”
The Port Alberni school board will decide by next spring whether to make the name change, said Craig, adding the board is looking for public input.
“I can tell you it isn’t going to be an easy conversation because it isn’t just the name,” said Ruttan, who was mayor when the council rejected a name change for Neill Street.
“Without a doubt, A.W. Neill was racist, but also, we have to think about that time. It was a very racist time and there were what people perceived as a lot of threats to the economy, a lot of threats to safety and all that kind of stuff.”
Neill was the MP during the Great Depression, the years of the Second World War and the growth of residential schools.
Ruttan, a retired school principal, said he went to A.W. Neill school as a youngster. He said he did not know about Neill’s history while growing up in Port Alberni.
“It’s going to be a really interesting community discussion and ultimately the decision, as I understand it, will be made by the school board,” Ruttan said. “Kudos to them if they can work through this decision without alienating people in the larger community.”
Prof. Ian Baird, a geography expert at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Neill’s views were strong even for the time period.
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“Even for his day and age, and I think this is the very important thing to recognize, he was one of the most racist politicians around,” said Baird. “He was fundamentally against all Asians from the first moment he entered politics. Asians were seen as an economic threat to white people, or at least to him.”
Baird, who owns property in the Port Alberni area, said changing the name of the school is up to the people of Port Alberni, but “it doesn’t seem to me he’s worthy of an honorific.”
The Vancouver School Board will revisit an anti-racism motion at Monday’s meeting before heading to a vote.
The motion, put forward by Trustee Jennifer Reddy and developed in consultation with parents and community groups, seeks to create a strategic plan for both the short, medium and long term on how the district should handle and prevent racism and discrimination in Vancouver schools.
An interim report on the progress of the plan is expected in June 2020.
The motion comes after multiple incidents in the previous school year, including one that involved a racist video that prompted a Black student to transfer out of Lord Byng Secondary.
Another aspect of the motion to be discussed Monday looks at hiring an expert to advise the school board on how best to handle such incidents in the immediate aftermath of hate-motivated acts.
The B.C. Community Alliance is among those in support of the motion and will be in attendance at Monday’s meeting, alongside members of the Byng community.
“As we have recently seen several racist incidents at Vancouver schools and the way these incidents are currently being handled, it is urgent that it passes now. If it doesn’t pass, racialized Vancouver students will not see any significant change in the 20/21 school year, as it will not make it into the budget,” read a statement shared by Marie Tate of the BCCA.
“These motions also benefit the broader spectrum of students who need support when incidents of hate arise, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism, gender violence and more.”
The meeting takes place Monday at 7 p.m. at the Vancouver Board of Education office’s boardroom.
MONTGOMERY, ALA. – It’s dusk and just outside the windows of Room 107 at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, the final remnants of the band are leaving practice the same way they came: blaring and filling the now chilled crisp of the December air with the powerful and royal tones of brass.
Justin Heideman, better known as “Vanilla Funk” or “that boy John,” shifts his position in his chair and postures up from a slouch, clutching the ever so familiar mace drum majors wield. There is a calm intensity that covers him as if he is still in front of his band – as if he’s still in control.
That’s because he is.
Heideman raises his hand, as if to say, “Hold on one second,” reaches for his iPhone and dials the number of his band director Brandon Howard.
“Can you tell the guys outside to be quiet? They are interrupting what’s going on in here.”
He hangs up, slouches back, tilts his head toward the tiled ceiling and takes a breath before moving his fingers through his hair against the grain. Now, back in his position of comfort, Heideman focuses in; it’s time for another interview.
This is his life now, but he hasn’t changed a bit, despite the few who misunderstand who he is and what it took for him to be in the position he is in now.
This isn’t a game for Heideman. It never has been.
Music is his passion, and before he went viral in October, a white boy leading an all-black band, Heideman carried out his job as head drum major the same way he does now: with discipline, fervor, an intense desire to learn at all costs and a dedication to uphold the legacy of Jeff Davis drum majors who came before him.
But, Heideman’s existence is not and was not about clicks, laughs, followers or being invited to the proverbial “cookout.” It’s about being a Jefferson Davis “Intermission Magician” from his first breath to his last, and he’ll stand for that in the face of prejudice and those suggesting he’s a talentless token who doesn’t belong.
“They say it’s ‘white mediocrity,’” Heideman said. “I don’t care if I’m white, I don’t care if I’m Asian, Hispanic, black, whatever. I don’t care if I’m in the front, in the back, 5 miles behind … mediocrity is not the word.
“I don’t care if you call me white. You can call me white all day, you can call me a cracker, but as soon as you call me ‘mediocre,’ don’t come after my craft, because I have worked tirelessly to perfect this craft.”
Oct. 5, 2019, was the day Heideman’s life changed forever.
It was Saturday, the day after JD’s band conducted its annual homecoming parade around the school, when social media personality @PubbyLongway released a video commentary of Heideman leading the JD band.
It went viral.
“The first thing that I thought was, ‘This is hilarious! He’s talking about us!’” Heideman said, without realizing how popular @PubbyLongway was. “When I looked at his profile, he was really popular on social media. I was like, ‘He’s actually really famous on social media; this might go viral!’”
By the end of the weekend, the video had amassed hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter, each.
Heideman’s fellow drum majors, Xavier “Cruise Control” Jackson, Dominic “D-Willy” Williams, and Jaylon “Freak Nasty” Jones, said they had the same reaction.
Jackson and Williams reached out to Heideman as soon as they saw the video picking up steam, but he played it cool, Jackson said.
“I saw the video, and I busted out laughing, that’s all I could do,” Jackson said. “Then I went to Justin and said ‘Justin, did you see this video? and he said ‘Yea, I been seen it.’ And I’m looking like, ‘How did you feel about it?’”
Heideman’s response: “I just busted out laughing, I can’t feel no way.” There was a collective feeling of disbelief, Jones said. The group didn’t expect it to “blow up” and when it did, it became “surreal.”
When the four got to school on Monday they were met with praises and the most popular lines of the video’s commentary, ‘Slideee, to the Sky!’ and ‘Where that boy John at?’ Williams said.
Heideman was a celebrity.
The viral nature of the video was exciting, but Howard, the band’s director of nine years, said he was afraid his band would be viewed as a joke, among other things. He was concerned about the image of the band and protecting his kids from the horrors of the comment section online – an intuition that became a reality.
“When I saw it, of course it was pretty funny,” Howard said. “But when I was watching the video I was like ‘Man, how are you all going to catch this video?’ This was probably the worst video that I wanted put out there of my group.”
There were a lot of variables to consider for Howard: His band wasn’t completely dressed, as it was a minor parade JD does every year for homecoming where they march from the school to the elementary school across the street and back; Heideman had a ponytail at the top of his head, put in by his girlfriend, Jenilyn Davis, as a joke, “that no one would notice,” according to Jackson; and the focus of the video was placed solely on Heideman.
“It’s funny to put them on display like that,” Howard said. “But I don’t want my band to turn into a joke. I don’t want him (Heideman) to turn into a joke.”
That wasn’t the intention of Pubby Longway’s post. He said he was impressed and that Heideman deserved the attention. However, Longway didn’t account for the seeds of hate that would sprout in response. No one really did.
Longway stumbled across the initial video of Heideman performing, while browsing on Facebook. He said he was thoroughly impressed because had never seen a white drum major lead an all-black band.
“I was just chilling, and I had videos just running,” Longway said. “Next thing you know I left the room, and I heard some band stuff playing, and I like band music, because I was in band myself. So, I said, ‘Let me go back and listen to that.’ I ran back to my room and I saw Justin. I was like ‘What!? It’s a white boy leading the pack.’”
That was enough for Longway to record one of his famous voice-overs, and the internet took care of the rest. Longway said he expected to get a little more views than he usually does, “50K maybe 100K,” he said, because of the unique nature of the content.
It blew up beyond expectations, and today the video sits at 4.4 million views.
Even with the praise and positive social engagement, hate, ignorance, and prejudice countered with a punch of its own.
I’m Sorry!!!.. The “Sonic Boom!” Is A Very!! Rich Black Legacy!!.. I’ve Been Gone Many!!, Many! Years But, To See How This White Kid Is All!! Up Front!!????.. He CAN’T!!! Do ANY!! Of The Moves Or, Steps Right! He’s Stiff!! ..It’s A Slap!!! In The Face!! To Black People!!! …The College That’s The Originator!! Gets Sometimes NO!! Hits Or, Very Few!!!… & Last!!.. It’s The Left!!! Side Whites!! In Government!!& Hollywood!!.. Ect… Pushing This Crap!!! NOT!!! The Right!!! & It’s Been Going On Ever Since Blacks Have Been BS! Played By The Left!!! It’s Been!!! Done In Hollywood!!! All The Time!!!… Put This Kid Back!!! In The Band WITH!! A HORN!!…The “White Bitin!??” Has To STOP!!!.. (Stephen Herron, YouTube)
A slice of the African American community saw Heideman’s lead as a crime. Comments poured in on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other online forums incriminating Heideman of not being worthy to lead the band.
“They don’t know the full story behind that, you can’t just go off what you see,” Jackson said. “I feel like people are saying that because he’s the first person you see and then you got us behind him. No, it should all just be about that one band, because it’s one band.”
Others suggested there was something heinous about a group of black children following the lead of a white boy and expressed that Heideman took the attention away from the three other drum majors:
Ya’ll (sic) the reason we can’t get ahead as people!!! Do not share or praise this fellow ALL THE WHILE IGNORING THE BLACK DRUM MAJORS DOING JUST AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER! I have nothing against him personally but stop praising white mediocrity. (username: tsugraytiger, hbcusports.com forum)
“I saw all the slander,” Longway said. “I even got some slander off of that, because it’s a lot of people that are real pro-black now, and they were like ‘Yea, you’re just helping another white dude get on. He’s just on your back and he gonna ride ya.’ And I saw Justin was getting the lash of a white boy being in that position, while black people been doing it for so long and he’s getting recognition off of it like it’s just something brand new.”
However, “I don’t even think it phased him really,” Longway said.
That wasn’t the case, the words cut deeper than Heideman let off.
Howard said Heideman ultimately came to him considering quitting, all the while letting on that he was fine. Howard wasn’t having that. Thus, Heideman told Howard if quitting was “too far of a step,” then let’s shake up the formation. “Put Xavier in the front, Dom can take his spot, Jalen can take (Dom’s) spot, and I’ll sit in the back, since everybody wants to talk about how I don’t deserve to be in the front.”
The public backlash from a select group of people was an “eye-opener” for Heideman, Howard said. “He didn’t realize people would approach it that way. But a high school kid, really? This kid is 17 years old, he didn’t ask for this.”
Those commenting saw their words as a protection of the culture – a culture that African Americans fight to preserve daily. Yet many did not give Heideman the benefit of the doubt. Rather, he was viewed as an invader, someone that encroached on a piece of black culture that they weren’t willing to surrender as so many other things.
In many ways, the opposition that Heideman faced is an age-old story blacks have been up against for years when attempting to enter a space not everyone agreed they belonged in.
“I just feel like he’s in our shoes a little bit, like in a black person’s world,” Longway said. “You know how black people try to get into a sport or something new like hockey or something? Or anything like polo, you know you’re the first black to do something? In high school, I’ve never seen a white drum major do anything like that.”
What’s not understood by some onlookers is Heideman’s journey and the work he put in to achieve this status, as alluded to by Longway. Some have not taken a look beyond the viral nature of the video, or the idea of Justin as just another white person trying to be cool. But the ones closest to Heideman say it’s beyond that.
It’s about the band and functionality thereof. It’s about Heideman earning his spot just like every other drum major that came before.
“They just think he just gets out there and just dances,” Williams said. “It’s bigger than that.”
Race is not the whole story, they said though the viralization of Heideman’s existence made that his narrative.
“When you get to looking on the internet, everybody is slandering him,” Williams said. “Saying, ‘What is he doing as a white head drum major leading a black band?’ To me, (his race) really doesn’t faze me, but as to see people talk about him, it’s stupid. Justin, all the things he went through, all the trials and tribulations that he took to become the person he is, a lot of people don’t see that side of him, because they just see him on the internet.”
For starters, Heideman has been the head drum major at JD the past two years, and America is late to the party.
Furthermore, the process of becoming a drum major is a rigorous task. Howard takes those auditioning through a one- to two-month process of punctilious training before auditions start.
This process starts with about 15 individuals. Practices last hours and extend to the weekends, weeding out the unqualified. The number of participants dwindles with each week, and by audition time there are usually about four or five, “because everybody can’t really hang,” Howard said.
Once the audition gets underway, those remaining are graded on a 80-point scale by judges on stationary points (detailed body control and executing specific movements), conducting, facial and whistle commands and a small routine they must execute.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you pick your drum majors because they can dance,’” Howard said. “No, we pick them because they are meticulous in the way they do things.”
Of those 80 points, the year Heideman auditioned, he scored a 78 out of 80. The highest score.
Earning his keep: The birth of ‘Vanilla Funk’
Unlike most white children in Montgomery and the surrounding areas, Heideman attends one of the city’s traditional public schools, instead of one of its magnet or private schools.
Demographically, JD is roughly 91% black and 6% white, according to the Alabama Department of Education report card. So, Heideman was always going to stand out, but his parents didn’t think this was an issue.
“His mother and I both went to public school here in Montgomery,” Eric Heideman, Justin’s father said. “To this family, color is not an issue. We don’t look at race. We look at the quality of the person.”
Heideman was hesitant about many things his freshman year, which included joining the band. It all was foreign to him.
Heideman attended the first practice but didn’t return at the request of his parents who wanted him to spend the first semester of school focusing on his grades.
When he got his shot to join again in the spring, Heideman was still unsure.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Heideman said, “didn’t know anything about the SWAC or HBCU show style-bands.”
His hesitancy quickly turned into love, and Heideman made the decision to give all that he had to band: “back-breaking work,” he described it. Nonetheless, there were still some obstacles to be scaled and questions to be answered.
One of those questions was posed by fellow drum major Jackson and trombonist at the time: “Is he going to be able to keep up? Will he be able to do this how we do this? I wasn’t quick to judge, I gave him a shot,” Jackson said. “I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around him.”
However, Jackson and others soon found the character ultimately unearthed was of an individual who wants to be the best, learn as much as he can, and yearns to lead. Heideman pursues those things unrelentingly, and he meticulously studies his craft.
“He might be one of the most passionate kids I’ve had here at Jeff Davis,” Howard said. “From the time he stepped foot in the door, he was excited about playing his (trumpet). He wanted to be the best player. Then he noticed the drum majors, and he wanted to be the best leader.”
By the summer of 2016 that’s what Heideman set his sights on.
“It was instinctively inside of me saying, ‘If you work hard maybe others will see it, and try to outdo you, and then you can try to outdo them. Iron sharpens iron. So, then I worked harder and harder, and I told myself, ‘I want to be drum major.’”
He’d only been with the band for a handful of months, but he wasn’t shy about declaring his interest in leading.
“He would come in here every day saying, ‘Mr. Howard, let me show you what I learned,’” Howard said. “Then he would show me a drum major routine that he tried to put together. Everything was kind of shaky, but you could tell he was really driven to get it done.”
Heideman spent hours in his room studying styles and marching sequences. He’d watch videos of HBCU drum majors from around the country, emulating what he saw. Everything was trial and error, he said.
He mixed styles together, tried moves that didn’t necessarily go with one another. He blazed his own path in the confines of his home and laid the groundwork for the day he’d get his shot. He visualized it and made it a reality for himself in advance.
Heideman remembers the first time he ever attempted to move like a show-style drum major. It was the summer of 2016, before his first band camp with JD. He walked outside into his backyard dressed for the occasion, shirt tucked into pants, the only thing missing was a whistle. “I wanted to dance like a drum major,” he said, “so, I marched like a drum major,” and he used his imagination to fill in the rest.
He could hear the music, he could see the crowd and the formation of the band he led. He felt his fellow drum majors behind him, and his backyard transformed into welcoming greens of a football field with a roaring sea of people cheering.
“Growing up I always had an imagination,” Heideman said. “I imagined that I was the head drum major alongside whoever was there, and I marched in, and the band started playing and I started throwing some random stand that wasn’t even an actual drum major stand.
“I thought it was actually good, and then I cut off and said, ‘Yeaaa, I’m a drum major.'”
He prepared for what he knew would come. He led the trumpet section, Howard said, and emerged as one of the best trumpet players in the band.
“(He) marched through the entire year headed toward that drum major goal that he had already set,” Howard said.
When the time for tryouts came around as he entered his third year, Heideman told people through the band that he was going to make head drum major.
They doubted him, not all but some, telling him flat out he couldn’t do it.
“A lot of people thought he wasn’t going to make it because of his color,” Howard said, “and that was definitely something that would be a hindrance for most, but that wasn’t for him.”
Entering the audition Heideman competed for the four spots against four other people, including Jones and Jackson. It was muscle memory for Heideman and, “he knocked it out of the water,” Howard said.
The decision was made.
Howard announced the names third to first, Heideman said, as they waited nervously.
“OK ,OK, good job,” Heideman said to himself.
“OK ,OK, good job. Either I didn’t make it or I’m head drum major,” Heideman said.
Jones said that when they announced Heideman’s name as the head drum major, Heideman was “calm and chill” about it. Jones said they all knew it was going to be him because of how strong he performed, but Heideman’s reaction, though he was excited and in disbelief, was that of a fulfilled expectation.
Now, it was time to lead.
The news of Heideman’s appointment spread across the band’s Facebook page and left many in shock, including Williams.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Williams said. “It was really shocking. It was not bad, I was just thinking of ‘How is it going to be now that we have a white head drum major,’ and how that was actually going to change things?”
Williams’ question represented what a majority of people were thinking: “Will he be able to do his role and play his part? Will people accept him as a drum major and respect him?”
There was an unspoken sense that Heideman had to prove himself, despite his accomplishment. So, he led with a heavy hand, the trio of Williams, Jackson and Jones said.
“Justin’s approach last year when he first made it was more so taking leadership,” Jones said, “because we all knew this was going to be a totally different squad, like a different group of drum majors, the band is going to try to run over him. So his thing was, ‘maybe if I come in with strong leadership, strong discipline, then they’ll follow me,'” but that was not the case at all.
There were some members in the band that did not respect Heideman, Williams said, and he struggled with it at first, but ultimately, “He found ways to overcome that.”
“It took a lot to gain respect,” Heideman said. “Even still I don’t think I’m done with gaining respect from people.”
Though Heideman still has to prove himself, leading this band has become second nature to him. He doesn’t take offense to some of the resistance he’s seen and doesn’t see race as being the factor. He said leading this band, “is just like leading any other band.”
“High school students are going to be high school students,” Heideman said. “Everybody has their own little personality, and the ones that aren’t really disciplined are going to stay undisciplined until you show them that you deserve respect. It’s only then, when they decide. ‘OK, I’ll listen.”
He’s been able to gain this respect through being a teacher, his peers said. If there is trouble or conflict he knows how to handle it now. If a band member is struggling with some of the music, he has a knack for explaining and breaking things down, bit by bit to them, his fellow drum majors said.
“He earned his spot. He earned the fame. He earned all of that,” Williams said. “He’s been working so long to earn his spot, and he honestly did.”
While some feel the black band experience is “for the culture” and protected by the culture, those close to Heideman insists he is not here to steal it. Rather, he has worked hard to be a part of it and lives to honor it. He’s an ally, not an invader.
“Justin came to be a part of this, not to overtake it,” Williams said.
Jackson further explained: “We (the black band) keep marching on. I say that because back in the day we used to march for our freedom,” Jackson said, “and now today we have that freedom, but we’re still marching on. We’re showing that ‘Hey, it’s about culture now,’ and bringing the nation together as one.”
That’s apropos since according to Heideman and Howard, Heideman is receiving interest from HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs): Jackson State, Auburn, Alabama State, Texas Southern, Kentucky State and Troy.
Though Heideman said he prefers the HBCU show-style, he remains undeclared and says that it’s his dream to introduce the two styles to one another.
“I’m just another person that happens to be a different race doing what other people have done,” Heideman said. “Yea, it’s viral because nobody expected somebody like me to actually care about what people a part of this culture do.”
Follow Montgomery Advertiser reporter Andre Toran on Twitter @AndreToran.
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