The recent court case of a local teen charged with felony assault for punching a fellow student alleged to have taunted him with racial epithets serves as an important reminder that fighting racism in any and all forms must be an ongoing community effort.
Randall Nelson, a 15-year-old freshman at Steamboat Springs High School, was acquitted last week of felony assault charges and a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The case stemmed from a February 2007 incident at Steamboat Springs Middle School, where Randall punched a fellow student who had taunted him for more than a month. The punch or the resulting fall broke the other boy's jaw.
While it's important not to overstate the problem, it similarly cannot be ignored. And there is recent history to suggest that racism does exist in Steamboat Springs, including its public schools.
Randall, who is black, had been subject to racial taunts before. As a fifth-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, Randall was harassed by two older students on a school bus. An 11-year-old at the time, Randall was told to move his "black ass," and the students pretended to whip him like a slave.
Also in fall 2003, a dozen or so incidents of race-related graffiti were found on bathroom walls at the high school. At least one of the incidents was directed toward a specific student. That student and his mother later appeared before the City Council to express their frustration at how the incidents were handled by the schools and law enforcement. School officials think the student responsible for the graffiti was identified and punished.
In October 2004, Battle Mountain High School football coaches and players accused their Steamboat Springs counterparts of making racially charged comments during and after a game at Gardner Field. Administrators and students from each school arranged a meeting to talk about the alleged incident and other issues facing teens.
In August 2005, a 22-year-old Steamboat man was arrested on suspicion of spray painting racial slurs and a swastika on a parked car. Police said the man became enraged after he was kicked out of a party after allegedly yelling racial slurs at a black man. He threatened partygoers with a pocketknife before eventually leaving. The man later plead guilty to several of the charges.
Also in August 2005, racial slurs were written on a car parked at Colorado Mountain College.
This summer, a black man was stabbed at a downtown Steamboat Springs bar, allegedly after getting into a confrontation with a man who told him to stop talking to two white women. The suspect, Christopher Allen Hamm, appeared in court this week but has yet to enter a plea.
We weren't so naÃive as to believe racism didn't exist in our pocket of Northwest Colorado. Steamboat Springs and Routt County are nearly 90 percent white. Teaching acceptance and embracing diversity can be an even bigger challenge in places where it exists in limited quantities.
The Steamboat Springs School District has a no-brainer policy stipulating that harassment of any kind is prohibited and punishable. But it takes more than written policies to identify and put an end to bigotry and racism. It takes active involvement from parents, teachers, coaches and neighbors. It takes people willing to object to an off-color joke told by a classmate, friend or co-worker. It takes teachers with the courage to intervene when they overhear derogatory remarks in hallways and classrooms. It takes parents who address the issue with their children and emphasize its importance.
We hope the hateful actions of a few among us are simply that - the ignorance of a small number of juveniles and adults who nonetheless are capable of casting a dark shadow on our entire community. But hoping isn't sufficient. We must, as a community, make the effort to stand up to prejudice and racism whenever and wherever we see it.