POTTSTOWN — “Ugg.”
That is probably what Pottstown schools administrators say to themselves when someone mentions that they first heard about Pottstown in a story about banning high-top boots because they were being used to smuggle cinnamon.
“What?” you say.
The story, which was first published in The Mercury on Jan. 25, went viral and was soon being re-produced as far away as Australia and Scandanavia.
School officials were contacted by media outlets in Australia, Canada and the story has even run in England, although The Mail newspaper there placed Pottstown Middle School in “Potsdam.”
It began with a letter sent home with students Jan. 19, in which Principal Gail Cooper announced the ban, saying “we have been experiencing problems with some students wearing open top boots and carrying items in their boots that are prohibited in school.”
By the end of the month, the story had taken an even stranger twist when it was revealed that the smuggled items about which Cooper was concerned were none other than packets of cinnamon.
“The cinnamon challenge” is a web phenomenon, made famous on YouTube, in which teens try to swallow an entire tablespoon of cinnamon.
Thousands of videos available online show young people taking the cinnamon and then erupting into fits of coughing, gasping for air and, in some cases, vomiting.
John Armato, community relations director for the Pottstown School District, said a total of three “cinnamon challenge” incidents, two of them confirmed, were reported at the school.
One occurred “in a lavatory” and was reported by other students but was not confirmed.
The other two occurred in the school cafeteria, Armato said.
When news of the ban was first posted on The Mercury’s Facebook page, reaction was swift, voluminous and resoundingly negative.
In less than an hour, more than 100 comments had been posted.
Some were mocking, some incredulous and a few supportive.
When word of the reason for the ban was reported, response among Mercury readers took an even sharper tone.
“This is an even more stupid reason to ban the boots and it makes the school district look even more foolish in front of the general population and the world’s media,” posted Lyse Martin.
“This whole story gets less and less newsworthy with each passing minute,” posted Pottstown resident Jeff K. Rodgers. “It’s a shame that of all the things that attract international media attention to Pottstown, this is the chosen story.”
But it wasn’t over yet.
In February, an Australian online retailer, which “offers boutique alternative ugg boots at discounted prices,” decided to fight back with a campaign in which people were encouraged to support the removal of the ban by tweeting items they would no longer smuggle in their Ugg-style boots.
“We created a page on our site and sent out a message to our followers. We really just wanted to do something which poked fun at the ridiculous nature of the ban and never expected a response like this,” said Michael Hodge, technical director for the UK Whooga site.
“The next morning I was more than a little surprised to see over 1,000 people had joined the petition,” Hodge wrote in an e-mail from the company’s Australia headquarters.
“After the obvious, people began pledging to stop smuggling Cuban cigars, illegal immigrants and Ryan Reynolds as well as other items we’re at a loss to try and explain. According to the website nJuice, which monitors viral media shares, the item was the most talked about topic in social media on Feb. 2,” he wrote.
“For reasons I haven’t figured out in my decade in the industry, ugg boots polarize people. You love or loathe them, there is no middle ground with ugg boots, but the ban really takes the cake,” he wrote.
“So now we’re organizing for all of the tweets to be printed out and stuffed inside a pair of our Chestnut Classic Tall Size 7s. We’re going to send them to Gail, she seems like a reasonable principal looking at the school’s website, and we hope she appreciates the gesture,” wrote Hodge.
Cooper was not amused and declined the offer.
“I usually have a great sense of humor, but I must say this does not appeal to my sense of humor right now,” Cooper said.
The incident “has not been a high point in my career. This has not been a pleasant experience, let’s just put it that way,” Cooper said.
The ban was lifted later in the school year.