Marion High finishes week on remote learning following phone threat

MARION - Marion High School finished the week on remote learning after a threat was called in to the school on Wednesday morning related to the ongoing protests against the girls head track coach, officials there have confirmed.

Marion Unit District 2 board President Joe Bleyer said the decision to go all remote was made to ensure the safety of the students following three days of protests outside the school that at times became intense.

Emotions have been running high following a remark made at a girls track practice last Wednesday that was labeled racist by the sister of one of the track team members.

According to Asia Gossett, the older sister of an MHS runner, Coach Sara Baker called her sister "a black barefooted African from the Third World," when the sister and other runners tried running barefoot.

Bleyer, however, said his understanding of the comment is different. He says Baker noticed two girls running barefooted and said, "Put on your shoes. We're not African barefoot runners in a Third World county."

Gossett also claimed her sister was kicked off the team and asked to turn in her uniform.

Bleyer said that is untrue. "She was never kicked off the team nor asked to turn in her uniform," he said.

Neither Bleyer or Gossett were at the track practice in question.

Meanwhile, Bleyer said Gossett's sister and her mother met with school officials, including Baker, on Friday. He said that during that meeting Baker told the student, "I apologize if I offended you."

In a subsequent meeting on Saturday, Bleyer said the mother addressed calls across social media calling for the firing of Baker.

"She made it clear she did not want Mrs. Baker to lose her job," he said.

Attempts by the Marion Republican to reach the student and her mother have not been successful.

About 50 protesters arrived at the school on Monday, where about a dozen officers from the Marion Police Department and Illinois State Police were there to meet them.

While organizers promised a peaceful protest, there were several tense moments with protesters shouting profanities aimed at the officers, including a threat to harm the children of one officer, and comments that were unrelated to the announced reason for the protest.

The threat on Wednesday was called in at 9:30 a.m. Bleyer said the caller threatened to "blow up the building" if Baker was not fired.

"We don't really have much choice but to take every threat like this seriously," said Bleyer.

He said law enforcement officials swept the building thoroughly and nothing was found.

Marion Mayor Mike Absher confirmed that no incendiary device was found.

Gossett, meanwhile, told WSIL-TV that no one from her group is responsible for the threat.

Bleyer urged those concerned to be patient while the district continues its investigation.

"This is an ongoing investigation," he said, adding Baker will remain on paid administrative leave until the process is complete. The girls track team continues to practice and compete.

"We're here to educate all kids, including children of color," Bleyer said. "We're trying to do the best for everyone, to give everyone a place to learn and be educated within the school system and we strive to do better every day."

Absher, who became involved after numerous tags on social media, weighed in on the events.

"I just want to remind everybody that they need to ascertain the facts," he said. "The rush to judgment of anybody is, by definition, prejudice."

He said the current social climate is something that is hurting not just Marion, but the nation.

"There are lots of issues, including racial issues, that we must discuss as a country in order to move forward and overcome our past," he said. "Rushing to judgment, trial by Facebook, and threats to people's families are counterproductive to that conversation."

Absher urged patience while the investigation continues.

"I'm praying that not only can we find out the truth and context at the heart of this issue, but for patience to let that process happen," he said. "Moreover, that we are more civil to each other than this, whether it's race or social issues.

"Whatever we seek to become as a country has to be solved better than this or we won't get there."

There were no protesters at the school on Thursday.

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