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Cass Lake-Bena High School addresses gang-related concerns

After a group of 34 Cass Lake-Bena High School students came to school Wednesday all wearing the color red, teachers and administrators held an informal meeting with the students to address gang-related issues.

According to Cass Lake-Bena Superintendent Diane Lehse, the district has faced ongoing concerns about students coordinating their appearances in color themes of red or black, which administrators and local law enforcement officials believe are gang-related symbols.

"These students are not just wearing the same color, they're hanging around in a large group, which can be intimidating to other students," Lehse said.

Earlier this week, Lehse said, a group of students wore red T-shirts and were hanging around the front door of the school intimidating students entering the building.

"We had a concern there, which we addressed by telling them not to wear the same colors every day," Lehse said. "Then it turns out, (Wednesday), a student, and perhaps a parent, had called around and got other students to wear red to school that day."

Lehse said she later found out students had also planned through the social networking site Facebook to wear red shirts that day.

Lehse said she was not at the high school when the 34 students came to school all dressed in red, but a school administrator and two peace officers held an informal meeting at the high school to address the issue. Two students were removed by one of the officers for "being disrespectful" during the meeting.

"The administrators were not accusing anyone. No one was suspended," Lehse said. "Students were told that coordinated colors can be construed as being gang-related. We want to have a safe school."

Lehse said she was not sure how students reacted to the meeting, but she said some parents showed concerned. Wednesday evening, a group of parents, students and school administrators attended an Indian Education Committee meeting to address the concerns of clothing and gangs.

Another meeting to discuss this issue is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, at the Cass Lake-Bena High School.

"We're going to continue to have these conversations," Lehse said. "We want to work as a team, address these issues and make sure our school is safe."

As of Friday morning, Lehse said the school district has decided not to send any more students to the office or reprimand them for wearing the same color.

"They can wear whatever they want now, as long as they do not wear clothing that promotes drugs, gangs or alcohol, or clothing such as halter tops, strapless tops or with obscene drawings on them," Lehse said.

Zeb Hemsworth, police chief at Pike Bay Police Department in Cass Lake, was in attendance at the school Thursday when school administrators met with the students.

"I understand that some kids happened to wear the same color as the group of students that day," Hemsworth said. "The majority of the kids wore it for a reason, to send a message, with a meaning behind it."

Before being police chief, Hemsworth had served as the peace officer at the Cass Lake-Bena Middle School for three years.

He said the school district's decision to no longer reprimand students for wearing the same color is a bad idea.

"The first thought that went through my head was it was a victory for the wannabe gang members and a loss for school community," Hemsworth said. "The majority of kids are good kids. They are there to learn and succeed. But they are also the ones intimidated and, therefore, they end up losing."

Hemsworth said he hopes the school and the community can work together to stop gang-related activity, but this will not come without the support of parents.

"Most parents are supportive. Unfortunately a few parents are not supportive," he said. "They believe that we're doing things for the wrong reason. We believe we are doing things for the right reason. I believe we truly care for kids in school. School staff are charged with keeping these kids safe."