Oscar Penn and Mark Neighbors are at odds over a program at Opelika Middle School last month.
They do agree on some basic facts: A large group of students were invited to a Dec. 20 school assembly as a reward for good behavior in the fall semester. They were treated to a robotics demonstration, a tug-of-war competition, step routines and more.
Opelika City Schools Superintendent Mark Neighbors stated that the performances were screened by teachers, including one by a group of girls who started to perform and was interrupted by a group of boys in black masks — the boys and girls were copying a scene from “The Purge,” a popular film series.
Penn, who heads the Concerned Citizens of Opelika group, told the Opelika-Auburn News that students and parents reached out to him after the program, troubled by use of the black masks.
He said he doesn’t believe there was any racist intent from the students involved; however, he does think teachers and administrators should have recognized that the masks looked akin to blackface.
The adults should have talked to the kids about the fraught history around using such visages to demean or vilify blacks, then advised them to use another approach, Penn said.
“When an incident such as that, with blackface masks on — shoe polish or not — it’s degrading to my community,” he said Tuesday. “Even if the children were unaware, you’re not going to tell me … not one adult or one teacher didn’t have a chilling feeling when those kids came out with those black masks on.”
Penn thinks the school district should issue an apology for the use of black masks in the program.
He and former county commissioner John Harris told Neighbors as much at a meeting Tuesday in the superintendent’s office. Both said they got a fair hearing from Neighbors; however, the two sides just didn’t quite line up.
“I agree with Oscar; it was a teachable moment,” Harris said. “We don’t want to be rough with anybody, but we want them to see the truth … if you can’t see the truth, then there’s something wrong.”
Neighbors’ office issued a statement after Tuesday’s meeting, laying out the background to the incident.
“Since ‘The Purge’ movie involved masks, the boys wore black-plastic Halloween masks. The color of the masks was not discussed prior to purchasing them. The students just planned to wear masks.
“After talking with the students involved, we do not believe that the masks were worn to upset or offend anyone. In their opinion, it was part of ‘The Purge’ costume,” the statement read, in part.
The superintendent’s statement goes on in effort to assure the public that teachers and administrators were not dismissing the concerns expressed by Penn.
“However, we want to be sensitive to anyone that felt uncomfortable with the students wearing the masks. At this point, we will be evaluating our policies regarding voluntary student performances to ensure that all content is appropriate and approved prior to the event.”
Penn said he plans to address the matter with the Opelika City Schools board of education, which next meets at 4 p.m. Jan. 28 at the board’s office, 300 Simmons St. in Opelika.