HP School Officials Address Assembly Controversy

HPHS freshmen and sophomores prepare for author Jamie Ford to take the stage on Feb. 24, 2017. (Courtesy Jamie Ford)
HPHS freshmen and sophomores prepare for author Jamie Ford to take the stage on Feb. 24, 2017. (Courtesy Jamie Ford)

Highland Park school officials continue to deal with fallout from an assembly last week that got out of hand.

On Thursday, author Jamie Ford was speaking during a LitFest event at Highland Park High School. According to multiple accounts, a group of freshman and sophomore students became unruly during the discussion. Eventually they began cheering wildly at the end of every question and answer, including Ford’s final comments on the topic of Japanese internment camps.

Jamie Ford
Jamie Ford

Ford spoke with a school principal following the assembly. He returned the next day to participate in other LitFest activities. On Saturday, he wrote on his blog that his experience in Highland Park might have been the worst out of more than 100 school visits.

“I was perplexed as your teachers and your principal—who was just offstage, stood impotent, while you mocked me, a guest to your magnificent school,” Ford said in his post.

A Sunday Dallas Morning News article on Ford’s reaction drew attention on social media and other media outlets, prompting HPISD school board chair Joe Taylor and superintendent Tom Trigg to issue a joint statement Sunday night.

“We were… very disappointed, to read Mr. Ford’s account of his experience while speaking to our freshman and sophomore students,” the statement read. “Dr. Trigg has already spoken with Mr. Ford to offer his sincere apology in private, but we also want to apologize publicly, on behalf of the Highland Park ISD community, for the unacceptable behavior he encountered during his keynote address.”

Principal Walter Kelly called an assembly with freshmen and sophomores Monday to discuss the incident. He said that both students and administrators, including him, should have handled the situation better, and would do so in the future.

Some residents  have speculated on social media that Ford made comments in his presentation that may have instigated students.  According to first-hand accounts of the assembly, Ford did not make any direct comments about the school, students or community. However, while his novels typically involve serious subject matter. the first half of his presentation was described by many as “informal” and “light-hearted.”

Ford began by declining to speak from the podium and taking a selfie with his back to the crowd. He later told a personal anecdote regarding his first kiss. At this point, the mood of the crowd got rowdier as many students seemed to think that Ford’s story actually implied something more risqué. Witnesses say that several students were removed by teachers at various points after this. Kelly refused to step in, apparently believing that Ford was expecting this kind of reaction.

Ford turned serious towards the end of the presentation as he talked about his grandmother and internment camps. However, the clapping and cheering  continued, prompting him to chastise one of the students. Ford also complained to Kelly immediately following the presentation. However, most in the crowd did not realize how upset Ford was until learning of his comments two days later.

School officials do not think Ford did anything wrong during his talk. Their focus for now appears to be helping students understand why their actions have receive such negative attention so they can avoid another embarrassing incident.

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