The owner of a Kalispell-area convenience store has publicly apologized following an incident involving the Browning High School cross-country team on Sept. 28.
While some on social media have called for a boycott of Woody’s Country Store on Montana Highway 35 — alleging the incident occurred because the students are Native American — the owner said the incident was a “misunderstanding” and that he simply did not want a busload of students in his store at one time.
According to a statement from Browning Public Schools Superintendent Corrina Guardipee, the Browning High School cross-country team was heading to an event in Missoula when they stopped at Woody’s. According to cross-country Coach Steve LaForge, the owner of the store, Chuck Weis, came outside and tried to stop the students from entering. The coach approached Weis, who said, according to the school, that he “did not feel comfortable with our busload of students going into the store.” The coach told the owner that the team would leave and Weis “indicated that would be best.” LaForge went inside the store, told the students to put back the items they were purchasing and to get back on the bus. The statement from the school notes that the manager apologized to the students and coaches as they left.
School officials called it an “unfortunate incident.”
“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,” Superintendent Guardipee said.
Two days later, on Sept. 30, a mother of one of the Browning students posted about the incident on Facebook and suggested that it was racially motivated. The post has been shared more than 1,000 times.
In another Facebook post, Woody’s Country Store managers said that they had made a “mistake” in trying to stop the students from entering but reiterated that the issue was with how many students were coming in at once and not their race.
“The staff of Woody’s Country Store sincerely apologizes for the treatment the group from Browning received. These students and staff are most certainly welcome at Woody’s and we would be happy to serve them in the future,” the store stated. “The issue is being addressed internally, and we are taking steps to ensure all of our guests are treated with courtesy and respect at all times.”
In an interview with the Beacon, store manager Janis Orndorff said that while the incident was not racially motivated, the store has adopted a zero-tolerance policy with discrimination and that any employee who makes a derogatory remark to a customer would be terminated.
Weis told the Beacon that his primary concern about the busload of students was that there were so many people coming at once.
“I just didn’t want my employees to be overwhelmed,” he said. “All I asked the coaches to do was to limit it to eight or 10 coaches in the store at a time.
“This was not a race thing, it was a numbers thing,” he added.
Weis said he hopes that Browning sports teams continue to stop at Woody’s Country Store and that the next time the cross-country team comes through town he’d like to buy them lunch to make up for the incident.
“I want to make this right,” he said.