West students find surprises in Billings' hate crime history

2014-03-13T00:00:00Z 2014-05-21T16:37:13Z West students find surprises in Billings' hate crime historyBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Beau Linnell, a junior at West High, didn’t realize just how much he’d learn about hate crimes in Billings when he started a class project earlier this year looking at the impact of the town’s stand against such crimes 20 years ago.

“When it started, I was thinking it’d be just about one thing, about the crimes against Jewish people in Billings,” he said. “It’s taken off and gotten into completely different things.”

For the multimedia project, the 22 students in Bruce Wendt’s combined American history-English class are researching, filming and producing a series of videos examining Billings’ efforts to curb hate crimes, spurred in part by a rash of anti-Semitic activity and which sparked the national Not In Our Town movement and organization.

The project is called the Community Storytelling Partnership. It’s a collaboration between School District 2, the Western Heritage Center, Montana PBS and the Billings Public Library. The finished videos will be a centerpiece display at the Western Heritage Center beginning in May.

It also will be featured prominently during the Not In Our Town national conference, which celebrates 20 years since the Billings events, in June.

“They have an assignment and a task, but the specific outcome hasn’t been determined,” Wendt said. “I think that’s intriguing for them.”

Since learning about NIOT, some journalism basics and the nuts and bolts of video camera operation and interviewing, organizers turned the students loose to document the history of hate crimes in Billings, the impact of NIOT and the status of hate crimes today.

They’ve finished about 10 interviews since February, with subjects including former Billings mayors Dick Larsen and Chuck Tooley and former police chief Wayne Inman and current chief Rich St. John.

Many of the students involved said the project has expanded their understanding of hate crimes and changed the way they view them.

Donovan Luce, a junior, helped interview and record the two mayors and noted how they offered up different answers to questions. He was also surprised to learn that it wasn’t just the Jewish community that was targeted, but also other religions, races and people of different sexual orientations.

“It was so interesting to learn that it wasn’t all just about race,” he said. “It’s just eye-opening. It’s crazy to think that this city you’ve grown up in, that it wasn’t or isn’t as perfect as you thought.”

Linnell, 16, questioned St. John about the hate crimes the department sees today and how it deals with them.

After the conversation, which included a discussion on the differences between hate crimes and protected free speech, Linnell said he better understood the difficulty in not only dealing with hate crimes, but also in changing people’s minds about them.

“It’s hard to make a bunch of people see something in just one way when there’s so many different perspectives,” he said.

Julie Dial, executive director of the Western Heritage Center, said the project was designed to be a bit open-ended in order to let the students figure out topics on their own and draw their own conclusions.

“When you study something in history like this, it opens up a whole lot of other things for you to look at,” she said. “We want them to explore that.”

As the class wraps up the research and interviewing portion of its project, the students will soon begin to focus what exactly they want the finished product to look like and how to make that happen.

The heritage center will hold a reception for the students and to introduce the finished project in May.

Wendt said that he hopes the class, by the end, views the efforts as more than just a “term paper” assignment.

“This requires more than just learning the process,” he said. “They’re going to have to produce something that is useful and that the community can learn from. It’ll convey a message about the aftermath of Not In Our Town and how that is a powerful symbol. It’s something that people in Billings will be proud to see.”

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