By: John Miller
The mayor of an eastern Idaho town where second- and third-grade students on a school bus chanted “assassinate Obama!” after the Nov. 4 election has publicly apologized, saying there’s no excuse for such behavior.
Rexburg Mayor Shawn Larsen wrote in a guest editorial sent Tuesday to local newspapers that he was saddened by the notoriety his community had received over the incident, both across the United States and abroad.
Larsen told The Associated Press that a formal response to the incident in his city was sorely needed.
“When people don’t stand up and say, ‘That’s not appropriate, that’s wrong, and those are hateful remarks,’ it’s almost like they are saying that it’s an OK thing to do. And it’s not,” he said. “The mayor doesn’t have any authority over the school system, but I do think it reflects upon the community.”
In his editorial, Larsen recounted seeing Barack Obama speak in Washington, D.C., in early 2006 about his faith and how his upbringing had influenced his policies and his priorities. Larsen said he left the event inspired.
Idaho voters overwhelmingly favored Republican John McCain in the presidential election. In Madison County, where Rexburg is located, 85 percent of voters chose McCain over the Democratic candidate, and some claim it’s the “reddest county” in America.
But Larsen wrote that is no explanation for “hateful and vile comments” about a man about to lead the nation.
“I am extremely sorry that this incident occurred, and I do not believe that it reflects the values which make our community a great place to live and raise a family,” Larsen wrote. “Parents must realize that things said in anger or even in jest can have lasting repercussions not only damaging young hearts and minds, but a city’s reputation.”
Since the incident, Madison County school administrators have reminded teachers to tell children that words such as “kill” or “assassinate” ? especially used in connection with the U.S. president ? are taken seriously by law enforcement and can carry severe sanctions.
Still, Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas blamed the media for spreading news of the chants.
“In our district there was an isolated instance of children making regrettable and unacceptable remarks in regards to harming President-elect Obama,” Thomas wrote in a letter to parents Monday. “Word of this behavior leaked out to a hyperactive media and bloggers which in turn distorted way out of proportion the comments that were made, painting the entire community with the same negative brush.”
Elsewhere in Idaho, however, some said they fear incidents like these could further stain the image of a state already associated with white supremacist groups.
The Aryan Nations had a compound in northern Idaho’s Hayden Lake until 2000, when the group lost a $6.3 million civil judgment in favor of two people who sued after being attacked by Aryan Nations’ members.
After Obama’s election, a northern Idaho man erected a sign advertising a “free public hanging” of the president-elect and several other political figures, prompting the U.S. Secret Service to investigate.
Leslie Goddard, director of the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, said she first learned of the Madison County incident from her daughter in New York City. She was particularly disturbed when she read that school officials contended the students were young and that most of them didn’t understand what the word “assassinate” meant.
“They were just kids, but they heard it some place,” said Goddard, whose agency administers state and federal anti-discrimination laws in Idaho. “It’s really good that the mayor has stepped up and spoken out against it.”