CRESTON, Iowa — Many residents of Creston on Wednesday expressed a mixture of surprise, embarrassment and disgust after five Creston Community High School students posed for a photo in Ku Klux Klan hoods.
Creston Community High Principal Bill Messerole said his staff is going to have to figure out a way to address what happened.
“I think we are in the spotlight now and I think it is up to us to be a model,” he said. “We have to do something. This is not OK.”
Students at the high school have been disciplined after a photo showing five males wearing white hoods circulated on social media Wednesday morning.
The photo, posted on Twitter and Facebook, shows them in front of a burning cross. One of the students is holding a rifle with a scope on it, and another is holding what may be a Confederate flag.
Messerole called the issue a “student discipline issue that has been dealt with.” He would not specify how the students were disciplined and said the investigation into the incident was continuing. He said he couldn’t confirm whether any of the people in the photo were football players.
Several people in town have said the students received a nine-day suspension. Some described that as inadequate.
Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer said the department was aware of the photo but is not involved in an investigation.
Messerole, who grew up in rural Iowa but has also taught in Los Angeles and elsewhere, said he is aware how hurtful Klan imagery is.
“There has certainly been something missing in how we present things to kids,” he told reporters in his office at the school. “We are going to have to do something different. ... This is not our culture. This is not what we teach. This is not our community values.”
Trey Cheers, a 2017 graduate of Creston Community High School, said the photo was sent to him by a friend, who received it from the student who took it. He posted it on Twitter, writing, “... Makes me embarrassed to be from this town.”
“I was disgusted,” he said in a phone interview. Creston, he said, is a “loving” community.
Tucker Flynn, a senior on the Creston football team, posted a statement Wednesday that said, in part, “The 5 individuals that were involved with the picture are clearly in the wrong. ... But I can promise everyone that as a whole our football team and community aren’t about that. The actions made by a small group shouldn’t represent the entire football team and community.”
Creston native Teresa Cheers, 57, said she was most concerned that the students in the photo look to be proudly posing with the burning cross, rifle and “cowardly” hoods.
She said she knows Creston is better than what the photo shows and she hopes the city’s reaction reflects that.
African-Americans in Creston, including current and former students at the high school, said they had experienced instances of racism before but were caught off guard by the photo’s brazenness. The Census Bureau says Creston, a city of about 7,830 about 100 miles southeast of Omaha, is 96 percent white and 1 percent black.
“It’s just something I never thought would have come to Creston,” said Austin Bloyd, 15, a sophomore who plays on the basketball team. “It’s just sad that potential friends of mine would even consider doing anything like that. ... I’ve got to know who my friends are and who to surround myself with.”
One of his friends is Kylan Smallwood, the football team’s quarterback, whose mother is white and father is black.
“I’ve never had to go through anything like that” said Kylan, 16.
Older sister Tanna Smallwood, 20, came home from Iowa State University after seeing the photo to be with her family.
Kylan and Tanna’s father, Robert Smallwood, 44, said he thinks schools in general gloss over the horrors of slavery and of the Jim Crow era and what the slave owners and the Klan did to African-Americans. Had the students in the photo understood that better, this might not have happened, he said.
Danielle Smallwood, 44, Kylan and Tanna’s mother, grew up in Creston.
“I don’t think people understand history can repeat itself and that seems to be what it’s doing,” she said. “This happened in our small town. It just really brings that home.”
Correction: Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.
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