Strung Up: The Darby School Board’s Tight-Knotted Ties to Racism in Rural Montana

Saturday Aug. 1st, 2020

It was our first anniversary dinner, one year to the day since our first date. I remember her make-up, stunning shades of blue that evoked her Blackfoot name, “Blue Paint Woman”, and my bushy beard, curly and unkempt, symbolic of mine, “Buffalo Singer”. I had yet to be given my name, but in a year’s time I would receive it from Chief Earl Old Person, leader of the Blackfeet Nation. She would be there, holding my hand and helping me transition from my old life into a new one, just as she was there in Kalispell that chilly spring evening. I was holding her hand, laughing and reminiscing about all of the amazing memories we’d been blessed to share in our year together, and making plans for the future.

We exchanged loving glances as we dined on the same meal we had on that magical night one year before, determined to relive the joy we had when we first met. We sat at the same table, and ate the same meal, and it was as if the room was a time machine. For a brief moment we were both transported back to that first night.

One never intends to eavesdrop, and I cannot say I intended to overhear the conversation at the table next to us, but I also know that some people speak loudly when they feel like they are the only people in the room. The conversation among the all-white table of twenty-somethings turned somehow to Browning, the Blackfeet Reservation, and our home.

The jovial manner at which they imagined a wild, gang-infested, lawless frontier evoked the most racist portrayals of Indians I had ever directly witnessed. Centuries of pent-up white aggression at Blue Paint Woman’s very existence was on full-display. It was dinner theater no one had asked for. Even the look on the face of the woman serving our tables, grinding the night away to earn her tips, seemed to scream for help.

What could she do? The customer is always right.
And all too often, the customer is always white.

In a matter of seconds, the magic and love of the evening was replaced by a feeling of sadness, anger, and fear that I’ve never felt before in my life. We ate our meal, silenced by the level of hostility coming from ten feet away, and paid our bill. I tipped our server, worried that she is indeed severely underpaid for the dignified manner in which she handled overt racism. And the second Blue Paint Woman and I both emerged from the restaurant into the light-flooded hallway between the bar and the exit, she collapsed into my arms. Her sobbing was uncontrollable, and hot tears streamed from her eyes as she gasped for air. All of her physical beauty remained, but her innate ability to make beautiful anything she touches, to create beauty out of thin air, was gone. All that was left in the room was the foul stench of racism. Nothing could overpower it. Unable to do anything else, I wept with her, and absorbed the heat of her emotions. All of the rage and shame and embarrassment felt throughout her life was transmitted via osmosis.

Racism is something that anyone with an ability to read and comprehend the English language can understand. It’s easily recognizable when it is on the news, or in history books, or discussed in the context of struggles against direct oppression.

It was then that I was finally able to truly see and feel the effects of systemic racism. It was also then that I had to admit to myself that I had no idea what to do about it.

We walked, eyes red and hands shaking, to my car in the parking lot. I remember her hand squeezing mine harder as a man walked through the darkness toward us. Although he was simply walking to his pickup, his presence at that moment sent waves of paranoia surging from her hand to mine, and I felt the fear that millions of indigenous women feel every moment of their life.

“This may be the last breath I take.”

The compromise put forward by the Darby School Board in regard to the racist and violent comments made by Jeff Snavely do not meet the standard of justice deemed by history to be necessary to complete the desired function of his suspension. For if the school board desires to change the hearts and minds of racists in their midst, they are failing to enact a program of re-education that will sufficiently wipe out the deep-rooted white supremacist beliefs held by those who have welcomed them for decades in the slowly multiplying nest of hatred that permeates in Montana. As one reads through the list of classes and professional development services suggested by the school board to rid them of their “problem”, it is clear that their primary goal is to avoid firing the racist coach. The interests of the students are being overshadowed by their desire to forgive his racism, which makes the Darby school board a racist institution in kind. They perpetuate the violence he espouses. Their school district perpetuates the ignorance he displayed. And their students will grow to become ill-informed, hate-spewing racists who unwittingly turn an anniversary dinner for one couple into a scene from a horror movie (ironically, on our first date she and I saw the Jordan Peele horror film, Get Out. We had no idea that, on the anniversary of that date, we would be living our own version of it).

Pretending like they don’t own the problem of racism in their own ranks is exactly why they can’t be trusted to address it. They have shown their disdain for common decency and have embraced the “very fine people on both sides” mentality that is a dog-whistle to the white supremacy groups across Montana. If the Darby school board will not listen to their better conscience, they will listen when the rest of the state of Montana stands up against their racism and supports a boycott against Darby High School football.

In the words of the Bitter Root Salish Chief Charlo, “I do not want the land you promise. I do not believe your promise.” We do not believe the Darby school board will take seriously the problem of systemic racism. They, too, are the result of systemic racism, and are blind to the fact. Their signature, like the forgeries of the racist generals who robbed the Salish of the land Darby is built on, is worthless.

Jeff Snavely and the members of the Darby school board have never had to fear for their safety the way Blue Paint Woman has to fear for hers. The epidemic across our nation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is a reality for her and the rest of the young girls on the Blackfeet Reservation. As I become acutely aware of her suffering, and of the generations of suffering before her, I am committed now more than ever to ensuring that future indigenous children will not have to live by a different set of rules just to survive in a world that was stolen from them. As I see the plight of the Black Lives Matter Movement radiate across the nation, I am hopeful at the promise of meaningful social change. I have become enlightened to the overlapping goals of the two movements, how both are fighting a system designed to prevent justice for black and indigenous populations while protecting corrupt law enforcement agencies and perpetuating white supremacy in America. Our work today is to secure a legacy for the future, so that legacy will not have to be enshrined on billboards and flyers with the faces and names of the missing and murdered, but in history books glorifying the hard-won battles against oppression. By refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Darby school board, and by refusing to participate in Darby High School football games, other schools and educators across the state have a unique opportunity to join us in this renewal of human rights.

The story of Blue Paint Woman and Buffalo Singer does have a fairy tale ending.

Despite the horrors of our first anniversary date, I set a reservation at the same restaurant for our second anniversary, exactly two years to the day of our first date, and one year to the day of the frightful events that scarred our love. But as scars add character and give a story to tell, we decided not to hide our scars and instead be proud. Just as the color of your skin cannot be concealed, neither should the history behind it. We walked into our favorite restaurant, the place where we fell in love, proudly and more filled with joy than ever. It was only minutes earlier that I had bent on one knee and presented a modest yet beautiful ring to the one and only woman I will ever love, Blue Paint Woman, and I asked her to be my wife. I couldn’t see a world in which I existed without her, and I knew that I owed a great deal of that love and devotion to the shared experience we had in the darkness of each other’s despair.

Our dinner that night was full of laughter, excited phone calls to family, and long loving looks, but there were no tears of sorrow. Only the tears of unabashed joy at the prospect of spending our lives together, and the promise of a safe and secure future for our children.  

See the Berthelson’s Darby High School Football Boycott: Legal Justification below:

Referenced extensively in our legal justification are the following:
Essex, Nathan L.; A Teacher’s Pocket Guide to School Law (Pearson Education, Inc. 2006, U.S.A.)
Gifis, Steven H.; Barron’s Dictionary of Legal Terms, Fifth Edition (Barron’s Education Series, Inc. 2016, Hauppauge, New York, U.S.A.)

Darby High School Football Boycott: Legal Justification

Coach Snavely’s comments constitute an Act of Malice (Essex, p. 83-84). “Students are entitled to a liberty right with respect to the expectation that their reputation will be protected against unwarranted attacks”. Malice, as defined by Steven H. Gifis, refers to “the state of mind that accompanies the intentional doing of a wrongful act without justification and in wanton or willful disregard of the plain likelihood that harm will result” (p. 341). Similarly, Snavely’s comments constitute a bias crime (Gifis, p. 56), in that the post made to social media was the “commission of an offense where the person acted, at least in part, with ill will, hatred, or bias toward, and with a purpose to intimidate, an individual or group because of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity”. The last part of Snavely’s comment, “A lot less of that (expletive) would go on”, is proof that he intended to intimidate a group because of race.

We attest that there is cause for dismissal of Snavely in that his actions constitute conduct involving immorality. “Immorality is cited in relevant state statutes as ground for dismissal and involves conduct that violates the ethics of a particular community. Some state laws refer to immorality as ‘unfitness to teach’ or behavior that sets a poor example for students and violates moral integrity. One court has held that the conduct in question must not only be immoral under the particular community standards test but must also be found to impair the teacher’s ability to teach” (Essex, p. 155). Snavely cannot be an effective coach, and his actions set a poor example for students, let alone for law-abiding American citizens. Unless Darby school board wishes to convey the image to the rest of the country that their community standards are accepting of violent racist rhetoric, they should question how important his employment is to the community.

We attest that there is no ground for Snavely or the school board to argue that his firing would constitute a violation of his freedom of expression, but conversely, that his speech and the actions of the school board constitute a disregard for the first amendment and a violation of the first amendment based on students’ freedom of association and political rights. “Public school teachers serve in highly visible and significant positions… Based on their roles, there is an expectation that a teacher’s character and personal conduct be elevated above the conduct of the average citizen who does not interact with children on a daily basis” (Essex, p. 155). Snavely’s speech undermines authority of the Constitution of the United States, showing disregard for due process. In turn, this endorsement by the school board has certainly created a hostile working environment, as many teachers across the state (and in the Bitterroot Valley) continue to express their outrage over the school board’s decision not to fire Snavely.

Freedom of association grants people of the right to associate with other persons of their choice without threat of punishment. “Although teachers enjoy these rights, they should exercise them in light of the nature and importance of their positions as public employees. Further, they should be concerned with the ‘role-model image’ they project and the impact of their actions on impressionable young children” (Essex, p. 141). By displaying a disdain for due process under the Fourth Amendment, “initially incorporated in the Bill of Rights to counter the abuses from searches conducted without warrants… and designed to safeguard the public’s legitimate or reasonable expectation of privacy” (Gifis, p. 231-232), Snavely is projecting the image of a paranoid, conspiratorial anti-government propagandist, and speech that condones criminal acts of violence with disregard for the Constitution of the United States renders any argument that his post is politically-protected speech null and void. His speech does, however, constitute a threat of punishment for any students in Darby, particularly those who wish to pursue football as an avenue to higher education. Darby school board is expressing their own disdain for the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment by refusing to terminate Snavely’s employment.

Any claim that Snavely’s social media post deserves protection under his right to privacy must be balanced with the understanding that teachers are in a position of public trust, and that their unprofessional behavior has an impact on their ability to be viewed as role models in their community. “If private conduct becomes highly publicized to the point that the teacher’s reputation and relationships with parents and students have been impaired, rendering the teacher ineffective in executing his or her duties, appropriate actions may be taken by school officials and supported by the courts” (Essex, p. 145). If a teacher cannot avoid endorsing criminal behavior against black people based on racism and extremist anti-government propaganda, they cannot reasonably argue that their speech is being violated when the school board determines their presence to be detrimental to the health and demeanor of the students and community. Unfortunately, the school board did not determine that racism was a problem they should seriously address.

We attest that Darby school board is creating a liability issue with the retention of Snavely. “Foreseeability is defined as the teacher’s or administrator’s ability to predict or anticipate that a certain activity or situation may prove harmful to students. Once this determination is made, there is an expectation that prudent steps will be taken to prevent harm to students. Failure to act in a prudent manner may result in liability claims” (Essex, p. 111-112). In short, Snavely is akin to a broken window left in a classroom. One can reasonably assume that there is risk involved in leaving dangerous shards of glass around children, and unless the old window is removed and replaced, a student may injure themselves, leaving the school liable for any damages in court. Foreseeable risk is a risk “whose consequence a person of ordinary prudence would reasonably expect might occur as a result of his or her actions” (Gifis, p. 229). It is easy to see that Darby school board, by refusing to terminate Snavely, will undoubtedly be liable for any injurious effect of his retention.

The last thirty years have seen a dramatic rise in the severity and frequency of violent acts in public schools. Any endorsement, even a tacit one, of violent acts from someone entrusted to teach our children to have the moral fortitude to reject antiquated racist ideologies is in stark contrast to the pervading attitudes of the law-abiding citizens of our country. “A survey conducted in the late 1990s by Howard-Met Life revealed a general climate of anger and violence around the nation’s schools. A large minority of the student body appears to have a predisposition toward violence based on their inability to control anger. Bullying, insulting, and disrespectful behavior often times resulted in fights. If access to guns is added, there is a greater probability of violent outcomes” (Essex, p. 61-62). Knowing this, it is appalling that any institution would choose to green-light the presence of a violent agitator in their ranks, let alone one that is entrusted to give our children guidance and proper care. Should any acts of violence happen involving students or staff in the Darby school system, it is reasonable to assume that the school board’s decision to retain Jeff Snavely is to blame.

When students are unable to be involved in extracurricular activities, they run the risk of dropping out of school. The district is complicit in allowing Snavely to retain his position of authority, therefore, it is likely that student athletes sympathetic to the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as minority students in Darby, will feel appropriately disgusted and threatened by a system that protects a well-known racist. Student athletes in Darby will see their school board members as roadblocks to the support they need to stay in school. The school board shows a nihilistic view toward the opportunities for sports scholarships, personal achievement and growth, creating lasting bonds and memories with teammates and opponents alike, all in their vain attempt to protect an uncontracted seasonal employee’s hate speech. The school board has proven itself unwilling to apply reasonable care, “that degree of care that under the circumstances would ordinarily or usually be exercised by or might be reasonably expected from an ordinary prudent person” (Gifis, p. 473). In protecting their football coach, the school board has shown that the well-being of the students runs secondary to the reputation of an outspoken racist.

Why the school board chose to take on this wild amount of liability is beyond any ordinary prudent person, but so is their willful ignorance and inability to see their own racist behavior for what it is.

Brandon Berthelson is an elementary school teacher and former high school wrestler who lives with his wife, and son Noah Berthelson in East Glacier Park on the Blackfeet Reservation.