Minute To Win It: Balloon popping game makes a big bang in community

A minute to win it game played at a March DHS assembly sparked controversy when the game was reported by the Durango Herald that “to some people, the activity was indicative of ‘normalizing’ rape culture.” This incident was the latest in a series of  reporting on the school district from the Durango Herald that have generated considerable amounts of feedback and interest from the Durango community, including reporting on Superintendent Snowberger and his March interview with El Diablo.

Durango Herald reporter Mary Shinn wrote the article after she was approached by a concerned parent and student the morning of the assembly. The game included four senior girls and four senior boys who attempted to pop balloons in seemingly sexual ways by bouncing on each other’s laps, and it received mixed reactions, from horror to humor, from the audience.

“A high school student who contacted me was really upset, and I was very interested in quoting that person, but they didn’t want their name to be used and they didn’t want to be tied at all, and they just seemed so very upset that we didn’t think it was appropriate to quote that person,” said Shinn.

Many DHS students expressed concern over coverage of the event. “It was embarrassing, people recorded and posted it, they talked trash about the people involved,” said Sr. Kiara Valley, a student involved in the assembly game.

The Durango Herald also interviewed Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO) Executive Director Maura Doherty Demko regarding the incident, who was disappointed to learn about the sexually suggestive nature of the game. SASO works with Durango High School regularly through their advisory and health programs, such as the annual health fair, to tackle issues such as consent in order to better inform and support students.

After reaching out to Demko, the Herald also featured an interview with a senior at Fort Lewis College who is highly informed about issues of consent and deemed the assembly game to be an example of supporting “rape culture”, which was chosen by an editor to be the sub-headline. No one from Durango High School, except for a concerned student, parent, and an apologetic email from Mr. Hoerl to students and families were included in the article.

Many students and teachers at DHS were frustrated that they weren’t able to give their side of the story. The Herald attempted to provide more perspectives, as Shinn communicated requests for comments through Julie Popp, the Public Information Officer for Durango administration, as policy demands they do, and the district conducted their own investigation.

Dean of Students at DHS and Student Council Advisor Dale Garland expressed regret for playing the game he assumed wouldn’t spark so much debate.

“It was a last minute decision. They (student council members) were more informed as opposed to developing the idea because of the timing…Obviously if I had to do it over again I would have done something to probably highlight the athletic nature of the springs sports teams…experience is your best teacher,” said Garland.

Garland admitted to his key role in instigating the balloon relay, as he solely initiated the game after he had watched a video on Youtube prior to the assembly, and had informed the other two student council members involved in the event the night before the assembly. The few other student council members who were aware of the game felt it was inappropriate to carry out such an activity, though the game persisted nonetheless.

“On two separate occasions I voiced to Mr. Garland that it was going to be taken as an inappropriate game either by students or parents…there wasn’t anything else I could do so we went with it,” said Sr. Alyssa Robertson, Director of School Spirit for Student Council.

No student participating in the game or administrator was aware of the game before the assembly.

“I apologize for my lapse of judgement,” said Garland.

Even though Shinn had followed policy and contacted Popp, teachers such as Garland still wish they had received more information about the upcoming article before it was printed.

“I wish that the Herald article would have brought us into it before they published it,” said Garland.

Current So. and incoming Jr. Class President Ford Pitts also commented on how the public viewed this event, and related it to the Herald’s coverage of the assembly game.

“I think they are very subjective and obviously they try and push an agenda with who they favor and who they choose to interview, and the way that they focus on calling it ‘normalizing rape culture.’ They don’t reach out for the benefit of providing Durango and the school with news that isn’t subjective; I think there was a pre-formed opinion,” said Pitts. Pitts frustrations about the coverage of this event were shared by many at DHS.

DHS Principal Jon Hoerl expressed his disappointment of the Durango Herald’s coverage of this situation, as they chose to focus on the unfortunate game rather than the real purpose of the assembly, which was to celebrate Unified Sports at DHS, end use of the “R” word slur against people with disabilities, and celebrate Spring Sports.

“The disappointing part for me is that we had an assembly that celebrated our inclusion and special needs students, we celebrated sportswoman of the year, and we had an unfortunate four minute activity that they (Durango Herald) took and ran with and it made some gross over exaggerations,” said Hoerl.

Along with their article, Durango Herald cartoonist Gary Markstein produced an editorial image of the Playboy bunny on top of  the DHS logo, with the title “Balloon Pop Game” underlining the image.

Juniors Saylor Stottlemyer and Kaylan Wait were among those who expressed their concerns about the overreacted coverage of the assembly to the Herald, stating that this game was simply a mistake that most students found comedic, and that it does not represent Durango High School as a whole.

The Durango Herald wrote a follow up article after receiving more information from the district, focusing more on student perspective of the event, as well as the positivity surrounding the event before the game was played.

“We have taken appropriate actions to ensure that our pep rally activities are more in line with our vision,” said Julie Popp in a statement directly to the Herald.

An immediate change at DHS is that a lesson plan is provided for each assembly, clearly conveying the objective and agenda, that is sent to all staff members before every assembly.

Mr. Hoerl, along with many other students, believe that DHS is much more than what has been reported, and that we continue to focus on treating one another with respect, support, honesty, and pride as our Demon Way suggests, which is celebrated daily.

“I know that the people I hang out with, the activities I partake in, the administration… are all trying to produce a positive image even though we may have conflict. So the way I interpret it is that our intentions are productive and positive, and letting someone else define who we are doesn’t have to be the way we deal with this conflict,” said Pitts.