Vermont school officials are strengthening procedures for reporting and investigating racist and sexist abuse during sporting events after a series of incidents around the state caused alarm.
In recent weeks, allegations of hate speech at high school sports games have shed light on the widespread harassment that Vermont student-athletes face during games.
“To our thinking, let’s use this as an opportunity to improve what we’re doing,” Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We have plenty of racism and sexism and stuff like that happen every single day.”
After a soccer game between Winooski High School and Enosburg Falls High School last month, Winooski school Superintendent Sean McMannon released a statement saying that Winooski athletes “were called the N-word, monkey, and terrorist” by Enosburg Falls team members and fans.
Earlier this month, school officials reported that Burlington athletes faced “racial and transphobic slurs” during a volleyball game between Burlington High School and South Burlington High School.
That same week, the Hartford High School girls’ soccer team left a match against Fair Haven Union High early after Fair Haven fans sexually harassed a Hartford player, Hartford’s coach told the Valley News.
On Tuesday, the principals’ association, which governs high school sports in the state, released a list of actions it is taking in response to the incidents.
The organization has set up an online portal for spectators and students to report incidents at games. Officials are also working to create a “third-party investigation option,” outside of the schools in question, to investigate allegations of abuse.
That position would likely be filled by a retired school official, such as a superintendent or principal, Nichols said. If there’s an incident at a game, both schools would likely need to agree to allow an independent investigation, he said.
The Vermont Principals’ Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association are also asking local school officials to read a statement before “each school-sponsored event, effective immediately,” according to the new procedures.
“Sportsmanship and a safe playing environment are the top priorities for all Vermont school-sponsored activities,” the statement says. “Vermont law requires learning environments free from hazing, harassment, and bullying of any kind.”
Violations could result in ejections from the game, forfeiture or suspension from future games, the statement says.
The association has also moved up the deadline for all high school sports officials to undergo implicit bias training.
High school sports officials had been required to complete the training before next fall. Now, they must be trained by the start of the upcoming winter sports season.
Franklin Northeast Superintendent Lynn Cota, whose district includes Enosburg Falls, welcomed the principals association’s new procedures, calling them “an excellent place to start with this work” in a Wednesday email.
“It will be an intensive and ongoing process to raise awareness and make change so that all students feel a sense of belonging, dignity and justice,” she said.
The recent allegations have highlighted the fact that, until now, no standard procedures have existed for reporting and investigating such abuse.
After the Sept. 18 soccer game between Winooski and Enosburg Falls, officials at the two schools conducted two parallel investigations. After interviewing Winooski students, coaches and parents, investigators at Winooski High School determined that three Enosburg Falls athletes used racist language at the game.
But Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union officials found no evidence of racist abuse after their investigators interviewed Enosburg Falls athletes, parents and coaches.
Cota called that investigation “incomplete.”
“This result underscores the difficulty that exists when students from two districts are involved in an incident,” Cota told VTDigger earlier this week. She called for Winooski and Enosburg Falls to “come together” to “repair harms that exist between the two school communities.”
Emily Hecker, communications and development director for the Winooski School District, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
In an email to VTDigger on Tuesday, Hecker said district leaders are considering an offer from the principals association to facilitate a third-party investigation into the incident, but are seeking more details about how that investigation would be conducted before making a decision.
“We are concerned about additional harm that could be caused to our student-athletes by an additional process that is currently undefined,” she said.
Hecker also voiced her appreciation for Cota’s offer for reconciliation. But “because there has not been any acceptance of responsibility for the racial abuse reported by our student-athletes,” she said, “this may be a difficult path to navigate.”
Shaun Robinson contributed reporting.
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