Eastlake High School received plenty of unexpected attention two weeks ago when multiple media outlets reported on the school’s decision to cancel a Patriot Day football game theme on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary.
First reported by conservative radio host Jason Rantz, and then amplified on Fox News, the story led to threats against Eastlake administrators and teachers, and resulted in an increased security presence on campus.
However, an inquiry by the Sammamish Independent found the reason behind the cancelled theme was much simpler, and more innocent, than what was alleged in these media reports.
Student leaders had decided on the theme to wear red, white and blue to what was originally thought of as a home football game against Auburn Riverside on Friday, Sept. 10. The day before the game, they announced the patriotic theme on a student-run Instagram account. But a last-minute change in the football schedule, due to a COVID-19 case at Auburn Riverside, made this an away game in Seattle against Rainier Beach.
Although the initiative was originally approved by leadership class teachers, other teachers began to express reservations about showing up to an away stadium, donning celebratory Fourth of July garb, on what is widely considered a day of solemn memorial for 9/11 victims.
“When we first heard about the theme being USA day, it concerned us because we were alive when 9/11 happened and I remember what that day felt like and it definitely didn’t feel like a ‘go USA day’,” said a teacher who had raised objections to the theme.
Several teachers initiated a Thursday afternoon conference with the leadership class teachers, and after a discussion, a consensus was reached that the theme was inappropriate for the occasion.
A second consideration was the away game itself. Eastlake had no control over making a public announcement from the box to recognize 9/11 and give context to the theme. These themed events are typically reserved for home games and recognized by the game announcer, according to another Eastlake teacher who was involved in the decision to cancel the theme.
“It [the theme plans] changed last minute when we learned Thursday night that we were going to an away game,” she said.
Eastlake’s administration was both aware and supportive of the theme cancellation and the reasoning behind it, this teacher said.
That was also the position provided by Lake Washington School District.
“Since it was not a home game, there was no opportunity to have an announcement about Patriot Day and share why students were dressed in red, white and blue,” said Shannon Parthemer, Director of Communications at Lake Washington School District, in an email.
Eastlake teachers maintain that in no way were students banned from dressing in patriotic colors. Each student was free to wear whatever they wished to the Rainier Beach game.
On the Friday morning of the game, it was announced over school intercom that the red, white and blue theme would be replaced by spirit wear, meaning students are encouraged to wear Eastlake colors instead. The mistake could have been that none of the context behind the school’s decision was explained widely over intercom.
Parents started hearing about the theme change. Some became upset, believing that the plan was being disrupted unreasonably, and started posting their complaints on local Facebook groups. Screenshots of the Facebook conversations were sent to Rantz, who then shared the story on his radio talk show. A national uproar ensued.
On Sept. 13, Eastlake principal Chris Bede issued a statement blaming the incident on “A staff member [who] changed the theme.”
An EHS teacher said putting the blame on a single teacher is not accurate. The decision to cancel the theme “was made with many people” including teachers and administrators at the school.
However, school and district leaders were eager to put this incident behind them. The national attention caused the school to go into modified lockdown on Sept. 13 due to threats made against school staff. Eastlake’s administration was inundated by emails and phone calls from around the state and across the country, with one message threatening physical harm to Bede. Extra security was placed at the entrance, and around campus, as students arrived that morning.
This experience led one of the teachers — who was involved in the decision to cancel the theme — to make a sobering assessment of what went wrong.
“We weren’t able to have the whole quick conversation about it with everyone, then that’s when ‘you said something,’ and ‘you said something,’ and now it’s all over the school without actually understanding the reasoning behind it,” she said.
We kept teacher names anonymous to protect them from reactions or backlash over this incident.