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New protocols for Vt. high school sporting events after incidents of racist and sexist harassment during games

A photo of soccer players wearing shirts reading Black Lives Matter
Becky Savage
/
Winooski School District, Courtesy
The Winooski High School boys soccer team, pictured on the field in September 2021. During a game this fall, several Enosburg Falls students and spectators allegedly hurled racist insults at Winooski players.

Winooski is the most racially diverse school district in Vermont, and in September, a high school boys soccer game between Winooski and Enosburg Falls was marred by reports that some Enosburg students and spectators allegedly hurled racist slurs at Winooski players.

Audio for this story will be posted.

A Winooski High School investigation concluded that three Enosburg students used racist language against its players. But Enosburg Falls High School says its own investigation found no such evidence.

Winooski superintendent Sean McMannon called on the Vermont Principals' Association, which oversees high school athletics, to “implement robust anti-racism training for coaches and game officials at sporting events."

In the last month, allegations of similar racist — as well as sexist — harassment has been reported by Vermont media outlets at a Burlington/South Burlington high school girls volleyball game, and at a Hartford High School girls soccer game against Fair Haven Union High.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals' Association, about what the VPA is doing to address the issue and investigate future reports of harassment. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What made you, and the Vermont Principals' Association, decide that a line has been crossed and that something has to be done?

Jay Nichols: We've been doing anti-racism work for the last four years, trying to address these things when they happen in schools, in your own local school. And we haven't had a lot of these incidents crossing from school to school, and when we have, in Vermont, traditionally, it's been handled at the local school level.

But it became pretty clear in this incident [at the Winooski/Enosburg Falls game] that neither school, the schools together were not able to handle it. What happened during the game, the officials say, was never reported to them. No administrator at the event had reported it to them during the game.

And because of that happening, and because of us realizing that, in a society we live in, this stuff certainly can occur, we decided — with support from the superintendents and from the athletic directors — that we want to put more things in place to help in these types of situations.

So what actions are the VPA taking?

What we've done is, we developed a very clear statement to be read at games, with expectations and potential consequences if expectations are not met.

"We developed a very clear statement to be read at games, with expectations and potential consequences if expectations are not met ... it calls for potential ejection from the event [or] the event ending early and sending everybody home."
Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association executive director

And in that [statement], it calls for potential ejection from the event, [or] the event ending early and sending everybody home is also a possibility.

The game could be forfeited, or future games, if one school, or one school’s fans, are engaging in this behavior. We could resume the game without fans; the officials and coaches could just tell all fans, they have to leave that time. The game could be rescheduled without fans. And, further restrictions, suspensions from future attendance, and participation can happen.

Many of these tools were already in place, but because we haven't had to deal with it very much, a lot of the officials and new athletic directors and principals didn't realize that they [could] always do these types of things, so we want to make it really clear that this can happen.

We also added an online reporting system where anyone can report an event, because everything starts, of course, at the local level. And officials and coaches are being trained on implicit bias on an annual basis. That's a requirement we'd already put in place. It was supposed to start with the officials the fall of next year, but because everything going on, we've moved that up.

If somebody calls into that online portal and says they've witnessed something disturbing, how would the VPA determine if that warrants a probe? And if so, how would it be investigated?

The way it would be investigated is similar to how things are investigated now: It's done at a local school level.

"We've had four or five reports so far, since we went live with this, and in only one of those cases, had the athletic director not already had it reported to them."
Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association executive director

If a parent from “XYZ School” says that they heard these things occurring, the first thing we do is notify the two athletic directors involved, unless they've already been notified.

We've had four or five reports so far since we went live with this [in September], and in only one of those cases, had the athletic director not already had it reported to them.

I imagine it gets a little trickier, though, in a case like Winooski and Enosburg, where there's not necessarily recorded video or audio evidence, and two separate investigations occurred, and both schools came up with very different conclusions about what happened.

I don't know if they came up with different conclusions about what happened. I think they came up with a conclusion that, what was reported to have happened — which was reported several days after the event, before anybody reported anything — that there was no proof of it.

Winooski had some players that said some students from Enosburg, and some parents from Enosburg, made some racial comments.

When Enosburg conducted their investigation, they interviewed the officials, the coaches, the administrators that were on duty, and nobody from either side there was able to substantiate those claims, either.

So, because of that, there's not a lot either school could do. What we could do is bring in a third-party investigator to interview, if both school districts want us to do that, and that's an option that we've given to both school districts.

And have you heard anything back from either school district if they are open to that third-party investigator?

I think they're both open to it. One of them was immediately open to it, the other one wants to see more process, of what it's going to be about.

And I think at this point, the superintendents association, and us as the VPA, are looking at this as, what can we put in place for events that happen like this in the future?

What do you say to a parent, somebody who says, “Hey, I can say whatever I wanted in a game, this is America,” that kind of thing?

I say to him, “Oh, no you can’t!”

You know, the public body — in this case, the school district, or the VPA, it we’re running a tournament — has a compelling state interest. And that’s part of free speech as well. And that compelling state interest is to make sure that the event runs in a way that children aren’t hurt, whether it's physically or verbally.

"If you're going to be targeting somebody, or doing something along the lines of hazing, harassment or bullying or attacking a protected class, we're not going to have that. You're swearing at officials, or swearing at people, we're not going to have that."
Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association executive director

So, any type of hazing, harassment, bullying, from the stands, any type of comments related to a person's race, their gender, their religion, their ethnic differences, or disability, or anything like that, all that's prohibited. And we can remove anybody from any event for that, and we can remove them for as long as we choose to. We could ban a parent from ever attending another Vermont Principals' Association event, which would mean any high school sporting event in state.

So, they don't have that absolute right. That's a misnomer that [many] people think. You know, your freedom of speech ends where my nose starts, and that means also where my ears start.

So, if you want to cheer your team on, go ahead. If you want to yell out, “Come on, ref!” that's fine, too. But if you're going to be targeting somebody, or doing something along the lines of hazing, harassment or bullying or attacking a protected class, we're not going to have that. You're swearing at officials, or swearing at people, we're not going to have that.

Are you confident that these measures are going to improve things going forward?

I'm confident that they will improve things, you know, because it's not just sports. It's also, you know, other events that we run.

The event can be stopped. It can be canceled. People can be sent home. And we may have to make an example of some people that don't catch the message. And hopefully that'll make everybody realize that, we're serious about this, and that our schools are serious about this.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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