HAZARD, Ky. — It was an occasion that after would have barely made information outdoors the college gymnasium, a lot much less traveled past this 4,900-resident Appalachian mountain city.
However inside hours of Hazard Excessive College’s homecoming “Man Pageant,” the place male college students dressed in women’s undergarments appeared to lap-dance and grind on seated school leaders, the pictures hit social media.
By the subsequent day, they’d gone viral — sparking outrage that turned a derisive nationwide highlight on this tiny Kentucky neighborhood like by no means earlier than.
Pictures that included principal Donald “Blissful” Mobelini, who can also be Hazard’s mayor, smiling whereas half-clad college students danced suggestively — and younger girls dressed as Hooters waitresses — drew condemnation from legions of social media customers.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called it “totally unacceptable,” an investigation was launched and the ensuing media protection stretched all the way in which to a British tabloid.
The scope of response shocked many in tight-knit, conservative Hazard, whose red-brick downtown framed by mountains was as soon as a hub of a now-depleted Appalachian coalfield.
And whereas some locals have been appalled by what occurred of their faculty, many mother and father, college students and residents, stung by the onslaught of condemnation, have leaped ferociously to the college’s protection — casting the controversy as overblown and the work of outsiders.
“Individuals who weren’t even linked to the college went after us,“ mentioned pupil Gavin Goins, a sophomore who was on the occasion. “I believe it’s an assault on custom.”
He was amongst 100 residents and college students gathered in a Hazard metropolis park on a wet Thursday, two days after the controversy broke, close to a hand-painted signal strung between two picnic tables studying, “We Love you Blissful.”
Some in attendance had modified their social media profile to a photograph of the principal in a superhero costume. Others in a county the place almost 90% voted for Donald Trump within the 2020 presidential election blamed the media and refused to talk to reporters.
Automobiles honked as they handed the park, and cheers erupted when Mobelini — who had been avoiding public remark — lastly strode towards the gang, shaking fingers with residents.
“Blissful! Blissful! Blissful!” chanted a number of dozen Hazard Excessive college students.
‘Our delight is another factor underneath assault’
The viral scandal comes as Perry County has labored arduous to reinvent its financial system and picture within the wake of coal’s decline in a area with among the nation’s highest poverty charges.
In September, it posted one of many nation’s highest COVID-19 incidence charges.
Even some who discovered the “Man Pageant” custom unacceptable mentioned the outcry hit a nerve in a spot the place some really feel “we do not have quite a bit anymore, so our delight is another factor underneath assault,” mentioned Hazard resident and highschool graduate Terry Thies.
Others consider that long-standing Appalachian stereotypes helped stoke the incident’s virality.
“In Jap Kentucky, very not often do you hear something optimistic about us. We’re always being made enjoyable of and referred to as hillbillies, silly and ignorant,” mentioned Tosha Lindon, a Hazard Excessive graduate whose freshman-year son was on the occasion. “You by no means hear something optimistic. However when one thing unfavourable occurs, growth. It’s in every single place.”
Nonetheless, there may be definitely no unanimity on an issue that has sparked numerous debates and discussions in Hazard, from parking heaps at greenback shops to fast-food joints and the downtown’s retailers and courthouse, residents mentioned.
On-line, rancorous arguments and name-calling have erupted between residents on Fb. Some name it indefensible, saying the principal ought to have instantly stopped the bawdy efficiency and stopped permitting “Man Pageant” occasions.
Brenda Fletcher, 66, who mentioned generations of her household have attended the college, sporting a college T-shirt in her residence perched on a steep hillside, mentioned she blames the management for letting it occur.
Whereas the “Man Pageant” has been a characteristic of homecoming week for years, she mentioned, “they crossed lots of boundaries this yr.”
“I used to be so offended once I first noticed it. And it’s unacceptable,” she mentioned. “I don’t suppose it’s overblown. They wanted to crack down and say this is not going to occur once more.”
Others argue that the “Man Pageant” was merely a student-led skit that received too racy, and it was unfair in charge the college leaders who they consider didn’t plan or approve what was meant as a prank on faculty officers.
“They take their robes off and begin twerking or no matter. The lecturers laughed, they received up and pushed them off. Any individual took an image. And sure, it appears dangerous. Sure, it was in poor style. You know the way social media is. It simply exploded,” Lindon mentioned, whose son was on the occasion.
“Now we’re being made out to be youngster molesters, a cult, and I’ve heard we’re selling human trafficking — essentially the most ludicrous stuff on social media by individuals who aren’t from Hazard, they do not have youngsters in Hazard colleges, they know nothing about Jap Kentucky,” she mentioned. “However the energy of social media: That’s the way in which it’s.”
Goins, a pupil who was additionally there, mentioned he’d seen a TV reporter saying that it insulted transgender folks. However mentioned it was meant for enjoyable.
“Everyone was having a great time. No person was harm,” he mentioned.
Defending the chief of the Bulldogs
One cause it’s struck such a nerve right here in Hazard is the controversy is centered round a revered establishment and its chief.
The 340-student Hazard Excessive College, the place many graduates have despatched their youngsters, put on Bulldog mascot gear and attend soccer video games at a subject tucked excessive in a bucolic forested valley above the college.
College students and fogeys described it as a household and a drive that glues the neighborhood collectively.
And on the head of it’s Mobelini. Regardless of some raised eyebrows about being each mayor and principal, he’s broadly considered having labored arduous to assist college students, significantly these fighting poverty or different points.
Contributors at Thursday’s rally took turns telling tales in a bullhorn about his assist for college kids, and he’s recognized for offering rides, cash and amassing furnishings for needy households.
Former pupil Brooklyn Dean, who attended Hazard Excessive College in 2016 earlier than transferring, informed The Courier Journal, a part of the USA TODAY Community, in an interview that Mobelini “all the time helped the neighborhood” and had college students assist him serve native residents with issues akin to meals drives and residential constructing initiatives for these in want.
Dean was “really sick” of individuals “bashing this faculty and this principal,” she wrote on Fb.
Aster Sizemore, a Hazard Impartial faculty board member, discounted the concept Mobelini condoned this yr’s model of the occasion given his strictness about costume codes.
The ‘Teflon coated’ principal of Hazard Excessive
Others in Hazard, nevertheless, say Mobelini is “Teflon coated” and allude to previous points they do not need to point out publicly.
Certainly, he was investigated in 2008 when pictures surfaced of his daughter and 4 of her teenage mates ingesting alcohol and smoking cigarettes in a automobile he was driving. Mobelini denied understanding what the kids have been doing, the Lexington Herald-Chief reported on the time.
Mobelini is also the defendant together with two Hazard Excessive College lecturers and the district in a pending lawsuit filed by a former pupil who mentioned she was sexually assaulted in a lodge room by a classmate throughout a junior class journey to New York Metropolis and Washington, D.C., in 2017, and college students weren’t correctly monitored.
Mobelini has not returned requests for remark from The Courier Journal.
Luke Glaser, a highschool instructor and metropolis commissioner, declined to remark. Different civic leaders, together with Perry County Decide-Government Scott Alexander, additionally didn’t reply to requests for an interview.
Superintendent Sondra Combs mentioned discipline has been handed down for the homecoming “Man Pageant” however declined to share extra particulars.
Whereas the lasting results of the viral controversy are unclear, Combs, whose workplace has been inundated with complaints, introduced measures meant to offer a evaluation of future occasions.
Nonetheless, some right here consider the difficulty is a tempest in a teapot — sure to be forgotten as rapidly because it reared up.
At Thursday’s rally, the scholars chanted and supported the college and principal, giving it the texture of a pep rally. Simply earlier than rain broke up the rally as nightfall descended, Mobelini spoke to the scholars briefly to cheers.
“We received the perfect children and the perfect city,” he mentioned, “and that don’t change.”
Reporter Billy Kobin contributed to this report Chris Kenning is a Kentunterprise author. Comply with him on Twitter @chris_kenning