A better life in Steamboat Springs awaited the Nelson family when they packed their things and moved from Aurora to the Yampa Valley last year.
The family's transition from urban center to ski town was going smoothly until the afternoon of Nov. 3, when Deb Nelson's adopted son, Randall, was verbally harassed by two students on a bus ride home.
It wasn't 11-year-old Randall's clothes or athletic ability that drew the ire of the unidentified students. It was his race.
Randall, a fifth-grader, is one of Steamboat Springs School District's 12 black students, a tiny population of the 1,900-student district that apparently has been the target of a rash of racially motivated graffiti since October.
The incidents, of which the culprit or culprits have yet to be caught, have prompted an ongoing police investigation and increased attempts by the school district to address an issue some say is difficult for students who live in an area largely devoid of ethnic diversity to fully comprehend.
According to the account of the bus incident given by Randall to his mother, who then relayed the details to a Steamboat Springs Police Department detective, two high school-aged males boarded the bus at its high school stop on the afternoon of Nov. 3.
The boys made their way to the back of the bus, where Randall was seated with some of his friends, and told the fifth-grader to move his "black ass," his mother said. Despite attempts by students Randall's age to stop it, the harassment, during which the alleged offenders pretended to whip Randall like a slave, continued all the way to the Silver Spur bus stop west of downtown Steamboat.
Deb Nelson, who is white, sensed something was wrong the minute her son walked in the door that afternoon.
"He was really shook up," Nelson said. "It was so humiliating (for him). It was all racial stuff. You can't imagine the pain this has caused our family."
Nelson said the pain turned to anger a week later when she learned, through her developmentally challenged high school son, who also is adopted, of race-related graffiti at the high school that referred to ethnic cleansing.
That anger intensified when Nelson was told the first graffiti incident happened in October, more than a week before her son was accosted on the bus.
"The school should have at least notified the parents of the black kids in the school district," Nelson said. "I believe what happened to my son could've been prevented."
High school officials said they wanted to address the situation through curriculum and discuss it with their students. Both high school Principal Dave Schmid and Assistant Principal Mike Knezevich said they understood the concerns of parents and have spoken with several families about the incidents.
Police officer Debra Funston serves as the high school's resource officer, and she's investigated the dozen or so incidents of racially motivated graffito to appear on high school bathroom stalls since Oct. 22. The most recent graffito was discovered the week of Nov. 23.
The markings include swastikas, white supremacy references and at least one threat naming a minority student at the high school, Funston said. One incident also was reported at the middle school.
Despite interviews and tips provided by many students, the investigation is yet to identify any suspects.
"It's been difficult," Funston said of the investigation. "Lots of rumors, lots of buzz, but nothing concrete enough to put anything together."
All but one of the markings was found in boys' bathrooms.
Graffiti of any nature is a crime, but the charges jumped to ethnic intimidation when the threat against a minority student was made, Funston said. Depending on the cumulative damage of the graffiti, the charges could become a felony.
"We have to treat it very seriously," Funston said. "It may show there are some underlying issues in the school that we need to deal with."
Fliers announcing a $1,000 Routt County Crime Stoppers reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the graffiti are posted in the school.
The investigation will continue, Funston said, but finding a witness to an incident that occurs within a bathroom stall will be difficult, as will catching a perpetrator during the act.
Addressing the issue
School district officials stress the importance of teaching students about different cultures and promoting respect for all ethnicities, but it's a lesson that can be difficult for students in a mostly-white community to appreciate, Superintendent Donna Howell said.
"It's more of a challenge to deal with tolerance and respect for diversity when there's not a lot around," Howell said. "As kids reach adolescent age they sometimes strike out at others relative to their differences. We fear differences, and sometimes you create prejudice based upon not knowing. We have to make sure we constantly teach the values of diversity and differences."
Curriculum throughout the district is rife with studies of different cultures and people, content standards director Kelly Stanford said. In a city like Steamboat, curriculum is often the best, if not only, way to teach about other cultures.
"If a community doesn't have the benefit of having diversity, then teachers need to work harder and be more creative in their efforts to help our students create an understanding of different cultures," Stanford said.
Diversity does exist in the high school, just not in its ethnic form, Schmid said. Still he understands the difficulties of addressing the issue in Steamboat.
"Until you're really meeting kids of different colors, I'm not sure you get a real appreciation of diversity," Schmid said.
Schmid and his staff increased the attention given to discussing respect and embracing diversity in the wake of the graffiti incidents. One of the school's recent anchor periods was dedicated to the issue, and Schmid said he's talked to many students who are "morally outraged" by the incidents. The principal has met with school faculty to discuss it, and administrators have increased bathroom monitoring.
But stressing the importance of embracing and respecting all forms of diversity, including ethnic, is something Schmid has been doing at the school for years.
Three years ago, he started what has become an annual student exchange with Denver's Manual High School, an inner-city school with a 99 percent black student population.
"There's a desire among the kids to be exposed to different things in life," Schmid said. "Our kids are expecting so much difference, but when they get in a room with (Manual students) they discover they like the same things."
The student exchange has allowed many students to break down any stereotypes they may have had about people of different ethnicities, he said.
Breaking down those stereotypes is necessary, especially for the many Steamboat graduates who will leave the area and explore the vast world outside Routt County, Howell said.
"Not all our children will stay in Steamboat," she said. "Understanding different cultures is an important skill for life. If you don't find ways to provide understanding through different venues, the kids are at a disadvantage because the world is diverse."
Yet no matter how much an educator stresses respect and understanding for different cultures, there is always the concern about whether the message gets through, particularly when the students can't experience a lot of diversity firsthand, said Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis.
"What kind of impact do you have when you don't have those cultures or races around? I don't know," DeVincentis said.
"We talk a lot about diversity, mainly through literature. What we're talking about, though, is things you're not really connected to here. You wonder what kind of impact it has when you're not around other races."
School reflects community
When Steamboat students are taught about different cultures, it's almost exclusively coming from white teachers. Of the district's 283 staff members, only one teacher is black. There are five Hispanic staff members, two Asians and three American Indians, according to the demographic report the district sent the state in October.
Schmid said he can't remember the last time he's even received an application from a minority job seeker.
"Our school reflects the community," Schmid said. "How comfortable would people who are different feel if they come to live here?"
Strawberry Park music teacher Neil Marchman, who is black, said he thinks this city is a tolerant one despite a lack of ethnic diversity.
"I'm pretty big on Steamboat Springs because I don't see that tension," Marchman said. He considers issues of race to be few and far between in the school district.
Neither district officials nor the Nelson family believe racism or prejudice is rampant in Steamboat Spings. But any incidents that put in question the safety of students are serious ones, Deb Nelson said.
"The parents need to understand we take it seriously," Howell said.
"We just want to know Randall's safe," Nelson said. "He's a happy kid. He just wants to stay happy."
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