Why One School Board Member In Utah Has Started Wearing A Sombrero To Meetings

04/13/2015 08:49 pm ET

A school board member in Salt Lake City believes his fellow elected officials have unfairly singled him out because he is the board’s only Hispanic member. To emphasize that point, he has been dressing up in a sombrero and poncho for meetings since March.

To be more precise, Michael Clára has attended Salt Lake City's Board of Education meetings dressed as the Frito Bandito, the late 1960s brand mascot for Fritos chips that was criticized as an offensive Mexican stereotype.

Clára, who has been on the board for about two years, told HuffPost that he started wearing the outfit after board President Heather Bennett asked a school resource officer to sit near him at meetings. According to Clára, she did this after the pair had a verbal confrontation over the phone. He described the presence of the law enforcement officer as representative of larger issues in the school district involving the criminalization of minority students.

“You’re offended by a phone conversation -- you can’t put somebody who can use deadly force, you can’t put that on me,” said Clára, referring to the presence of the school resource officer.

“Minorities are on a collision course with the police," he said, "and we’re seeing it here with the board president. ... It’s criminalizing dissent in my instance.”

The school resource officer in question has always attended school board meetings, Bennett told HuffPost. Previously, the officer sat in the back of the room. However, Bennett said, she asked the officer to sit near the board's table because “some of us did not feel safe because of [Clára’s] volatility."

Bennett said she has now instructed the officer to sit wherever he feels he can best protect the room.

But Clára vows that he will abandon his costume only when the officer sits in the back again.

The school board president maintains that her actions have no racist undertones. She said Clára should realize that his words and actions hold a certain weight because he is the only man on the board -- not because he is the only Hispanic.

“I think there are differences in the way women perceive threatening, abusive language and in the way men may perceive that,” said Bennett. “I would hope men could understand that as well and recognize we need to focus on the work of the Board of Education and not theatrics to perceived slights.”

Still, Clára hopes his costume draws more attention to the negative expectations that burden minority students. “It’s why there’s a full-time [school resource officer] in a school in my neighborhood, but not on the east side [where more white students live],” he said.

Over the years, Clára has filed a number of complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights regarding his district’s treatment of minority students.

His experience with the school board, he said, is a “perfect snapshot of what our kids are going through.”

Earlier on HuffPost:

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