school bus stockimage

Stock image.

For the second time in a year, a busload of Browning student athletes and coaches left a convenience store in the Flathead last week feeling disrespected by the owner and management there.

The incident occurred last Friday, as the Browning cross-country team approached Woody's Country Store, located in the Flathead Valley outside Kalispell at the junction of Highways 35 and 206 between Bigfork and Columbia Falls. The store's owner said he told the coach he was worried about the entire group of students in the store. 

In a phone interview with the Missoulian on Wednesday, store owner Chuck Weis said he simply worried about his employees being able to handle the number of people in the store at one time, and that his concern wasn't born out of racism. 

But Jerry Racine, football coach in Browning, said this isn't the first time a high school team from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has been turned away from Woody's Country Store. 

His team had the same experience last year, Racine said.

"That manager, for whatever reason, did not want us in there all at once," Racine told the Missoulian Wednesday. "I don't know if he thought we were going to steal or vandalize or what. It just baffles me."

Racine said he was with about five players last year; on Friday, some 40 students approached the store, according to Weis.

Weis, who's owned Woody's for the last 29 years, said the football team's 2017 incident has been brought up since Friday, but that he doesn't recall it.

Racine, however, said in his years as a student athlete and a coach in Montana — where teams regularly travel several hours across the state for games — it was the only time he's ever heard concerns about too many kids in a convenience store at once. 

According to Racine, the 2017 incident happened like this: He went in first, followed by about five football players who wanted some snacks, to use the bathroom or just stretch their legs. 

"We can't handle every one of you," Racine recalls the employee saying.  

"It felt awkward," he said.

The man at the store tried backtracking, Racine says, but the coaches had already decided they would move along. They instead went to another convenience store in Bigfork — a smaller one — where Racine said they were helped without issue.

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Weis said the store gets teams traveling to and from games in the store all the time, and the last such incident he remembers may have taken place more than 15 years ago. Looking at the store's security video, Weis counted 40 people coming off the Browning bus and into the store on Friday ahead of the incident with the cross-country team.

"So all of a sudden we're in violation of a fire code," Weis said. "It would be a big deal if the fire marshal came in."

Weis said he spoke with the coaches, whom he ultimately blames for the friction that followed the bus stop. There were only three employees on staff at the time, he said, and didn't want them to feel "intimidated and overwhelmed." 

"I hold those coaches responsible," he said. "They should have used better judgment. … I feel they should have used some common sense and limited the amount of kids in there at once."

Social media catapulted the dispute to light over the weekend; one post has been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook. A tweet called for a boycott, and a handful of negative reviews posted on Yelp this week mentioned the incident.

Woody's Country Store posted an apology on its own Facebook page, as well. 

When contacted by the Missoulian, Browning Public Schools Superintendent Corrina Guardipee-Hall issued the following statement:

"According to Coach (Steve) Laforge, the owner of the store began trying to stop students from entering," the statement says. "Coach Laforge and the store owner discussed this matter outside. Apparently, the owner did not feel comfortable with our bus load of students going into the store.

"When Coach Laforge told the owner they would leave, the owner indicated that would be best. Coach Laforge then went into the store and instructed the students to put their items back telling them they were leaving and they left. Browning Public Schools believes that Coach Laforge acted in a professional manner. The manager did apologize for this incident as the students and Coach Laforge were exiting.

"At no time were any of our students and coaches at fault. All students were respectful and courteous and followed the coach's directive. I am recommending that our buses and teams not stop at this establishment in the future."

Weis said several times he never asked anyone to leave and meant no ill will. Even though he holds the coaches responsible for the situation, he wants to make amends.

"I'll do whatever it takes," he said. "I have apologized if I have offended anybody, but I am feeling like the victim now. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make it right."

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Racine, the football coach, said he thinks everyone should simply move on.

"I had never had an issue anywhere across this state, having a problem with our athletes being stopped or harassed," he said. "We're not going to be spiteful in any type of way. We're aware of this situation and we're not the ones that have to live with it, they are."

The Montana Human Rights Bureau's research director, Travis McAdam, said in an email to the Missoulian on Wednesday that what happened at Woody's last week is more common than Montana residents may think.

"Unfortunately, we consistently get reports about American Indians experience this type of discrimination. This situation described by the Browning Cross Country team is so common we've heard it referred to as 'shopping while Indian,' meaning being denied service, being followed through stores, and/or being harassed in a place of business," McAdam wrote. 

"Racism hurts our communities, and these students should be getting applause on podiums (for) not dealing with discrimination. Racism is also bad for business, and it appears the store owner is learning that lesson." 

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