SALT LAKE CITY — No one suggests life in racially diverse Salt Lake City School District is Utopian.
Nor does the diverse makeup of the district's high schools mean that incidents of racial discrimination could not occur there.
But a number of Salt Lakers, ranging from a former mayor to a teacher union boss say going to school among people of color, different ethnicities, religions and income levels helped them see their classmates as people first.
John W. Bennion, who was superintendent of the Salt Lake School District when the school board redrew the boundaries of East, West and Highland high schools following the closure of South High in 1988, said creating three high schools with roughly the same demographics was "generally, a healthy thing."
While the schools were not fully integrated, there was "opportunity for all students to get to know one another as human beings, not stereotypes," Bennion said.
Those students, Bennion said, are "better prepared to live in much more diverse world."
Elaine Tzourtzouklis, who was president of the Salt Lake Education Association for 14 years and now the Wasatch UniServe director, said she had a diverse group of friends during her days at West High School.
"It helped me understand the way people live and what they do. I didn't grow up thinking there's only one race, that's for sure."
Looking back, creating school boundaries that cut across the school district had positive benefits, she said.
Diverse schools teach students lessons about tolerance and acceptance of children who are different from themselves. "I think a lot comes out from kids being able to work together," said Tzourtzouklis, a former elementary school teacher.
"I don’t think it was a bad thing for the kids. Some of the kids had to go to different schools but most of them were able to be part of the group," she said. "I'm sure there were some who felt lost. But I didn't see pockets of black kids or Hispanic kids just hanging out. I saw mingling the times I was there."
Former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson, a 1957 alumnus of South High, said he recalled a lot of outrage over the decision to close South and redraw school boundaries across the district. "It just showed they were trying to integrate the schools," Wilson said. "If the lines are drawn skillfully, you can get kids from everywhere."
In the suburbs, schools are far less diverse, particularly on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley. "I suspect they don't see a lot of kids of color or other diversity so they may think it's OK to play funny games like putting on a white hood," Wilson said, referring to an incident during an Alta High School assembly that is under investigation by the Canyons School District.
During a recent school assembly, a student donned a pillowcase over his head that resembled a Ku Klux Klan hood. The incident sparked a district investigation that uncovered other incidents of racial discrimination at Alta, which has resulted in the principal and vice principal being placed on administrative leave.
South High was a diverse school, largely made up children from working class families, Wilson said. "I learned we've all got the same problems and we were all there to do the best we could," he said.
Wilson hesitates to say whether the post-1988 boundaries have resulted in school communities that are markedly more tolerant than those in the suburbs. He likens his diverse high school experience to learning a foreign language through immersion. The lessons of tolerance and acceptance were hardwired at a young age.
"Suburban kids sometimes don't get the immersion technique."
Former state Sen. Dave Buhler, a higher education administrator, graduated from South High in 1975. He says diverse schools have intrinsic value.
"I think it was good to grow up with people of all different backgrounds and see them as people, not just categories," said Buhler.
South High was largely comprised of children of working class parents. Buhler said his father was a business owner but "we were never wealthy."
"There was pretty good acceptance. Everybody had a place at South High," he said. "I think people did learn to get along with each other. I'm sure the administration and teachers had a lot to do with that."
Bennion said he believes educators should use the recent incident at Alta High School as a teaching moment.
"I think it's a good occasion to have some candid discussions about what gives rise to prejudice and stereotypes and how that can be avoided," Bennion said.