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Winooski Incident Prompts Calls for Stronger Enforcement Against Racist Acts in School Sports

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Students from Champlain Valley Union High School supporting the Winooski High School boys' soccer team - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Students from Champlain Valley Union High School supporting the Winooski High School boys' soccer team

On September 28, hundreds of community members came out to watch the Winooski High School boys' soccer team play on its home field under towering floodlights.

Teens, some from neighboring high schools, clustered together on the sidelines, laughing and cheering. Spectators wore Winooski Strong T-shirts and held signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Give Racism the Red Card." The crowd erupted into cheers each time Winooski scored a goal. The Spartans bested the Oxbow High School Olympians 12-0, and a trickle of fans ran onto the field to high-five the home team.

The joyful show of support was a response to the events at another home game 10 days earlier. During that heated match against Enosburg Falls High School, several Black Winooski players said spectators and three members of the opposing team shouted racist slurs, including "the N-word," "monkeys" and "terrorists."

While the alleged harassers on the Enosburg team have not been punished — Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent Lynn Cota said last week that her district's investigation is ongoing — those refereeing the game ejected a Black Winooski player for headbutting a player on the opposing team.

Verbal abuse during a fast-paced, aggressive contest can be difficult to document, but the recent incident demonstrated the weakness of Vermont's response to allegations of racial harassment on the playing field. And it served as a reminder that inaction leaves young athletes of color feeling doubly victimized — by their harassers and by a system that appears unable to hold harassers accountable.

The issue is especially painful in Winooski, Vermont's only majority-minority school district, where students and alumni have reported incidents of racism during a number of sporting events.

At a school board meeting in summer 2020, several Black athletes shared how opposing soccer teams had directed racial slurs at them. In filmmaker Bess O'Brien's 2020 documentary, I Am From Here, two Winooski students talked about being told to "go back to Africa" and having a banana waved in front of them on the soccer field.

In April, several Winooski high schoolers wrote letters to the Vermont Principals' Association, which oversees middle and high school sports, expressing their concerns about racism.

One writer was junior Ghamaril Osman, who plays basketball. Osman, who came to Vermont from Kenya in 2015 and is of Somali descent, recounted in her letter how a player on an opposing squad had pulled off a Winooski teammate's hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf. Osman's teammate then punched that player and was ejected from the game, while the hijab-grabber was allowed to stay, Osman explained in an interview.

"Where are the officials of color?" Osman asked in her letter. "What kind of bias training do they have? What is the process for reporting and handling issues of racism?"

VPA president Jay Nichols wrote back, thanking Osman for her letter. He explained that if a game official is reported for racist behavior, the VPA turns the matter over to the official's sports association. In some cases, an official might be barred from officiating, although Nichols later said he doesn't believe that has ever happened. He also told Osman that officials are in short supply and that bias training for coaches and officials is the responsibility of athletic directors and sports associations.

Winooski's Shabani Omar kneeing the ball during a soccer match against Oxbow High School - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Winooski's Shabani Omar kneeing the ball during a soccer match against Oxbow High School

Winooski superintendent Sean McMannon says that's not enough — the VPA should take the lead in dealing with race-related incidents in sports. McMannon elaborated in a September 24 open letter that detailed the events of the Winooski-Enosburg match. The VPA was already investigating the game — and a Winooski player —after the Enosburg athletic director shared game footage that appeared to show a Winooski player headbutting an Enosburg player, knocking him to the ground. The Winooski student was suspended for two games.

What wasn't caught on the game tape, though, were the racial slurs that Winooski players said came from the opposing team and spectators. When a player tried to report the comments to the referee, "it was ignored," McMannon wrote. He called on the VPA to provide anti-racism training for coaches and officials, and to develop mandatory procedures for reporting and investigating what he called "racial abuse."

Most incidents between student athletes do not rise to the level of a VPA investigation, according to Nichols. When they do, his organization relies on the players' schools to find out what happened, then report back. The association, which has five employees, does not have the capacity to conduct its own thorough inquiries, Nichols said.

But asking schools to investigate their own players can be problematic. Milton Town School District superintendent Amy Rex said that students often deny making racist comments when they're questioned, making it difficult to figure out what really happened. Rex said she thinks a lot about the impact a dead-end investigation might have on those who have been subjected to racial abuse.

"When something like this happens to a student and it's not substantiated, it feels to them like what is being communicated is: 'It didn't happen,'" Rex said. "It disheartens me that students of color are continually just not believed, and that's what it feels like to them."

That was the experience of Christopher Micciche's son Garrett, a hockey player at Rice Memorial High School whose mother is Thai. In a game against Rutland High School in February, Micciche said, Garrett was targeted by a Rutland player who said to him, "Why don't you open your eyes, you Asian bitch?" When Garrett tried to alert the referee, he was ignored, then given a misconduct penalty when he said to the referee, "Are you fuckin' deaf?"

Four days later, Micciche sent a letter to Rice's athletic director about the incident, which was then shared with Rutland school officials. In a March 7 letter, Rutland school commission chair Alison Notte wrote to Micciche that the administration had questioned Rutland hockey players, the hockey coach and referee; reviewed the game tape; and consulted with the Rice administrative team.

"Ultimately the school administration concluded there [was] no evidence to support the claim," Notte wrote. She said she had asked that the Rutland hockey team and other sports teams receive racial bias training, and the administration was planning to follow through.

Micciche, an officer of the Vermont State Amateur Hockey Association, said he was disappointed by the investigation. The VPA should always handle such incidents, since schools have "a vested interest" in exonerating their own athletes, he said.

"Policies are fine, but if you don't have a way of implementing those policies and enforcing them, that's really what's lacking," said Micciche. He called the VPA "a toothless tiger."

But VPA president Nichols said he believes that schools are better equipped to investigate their students than outsiders would be.

"Typically, when people interview their own kids, they're much more likely to get the truth," Nichols said. "They know their students, and they know the players on the team."

Elijah Hawkes, who spent a decade as a principal at Randolph Union Middle/High School before leaving in June 2021, said he dealt with incidents in which his students had been both the targets and perpetrators of racial harassment. Schools are required to have policies for investigating such incidents, Hawkes said, but confidentiality rules can make it difficult to share information between institutions.

When a student dies, or when a school shooting threat is made, outside organizations such as mental health agencies or law enforcement assist in the response, Hawkes said, "but when there's an incident of racial harassment — that's also high stakes and also traumatic and also can have huge ripple effects through the community — there's not the same level of support."

Winooski High School boys' soccer team huddling during a game against Oxbow High School - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Winooski High School boys' soccer team huddling during a game against Oxbow High School

Hawkes recalled an occasion when one of his students was called the N-word by both a player on the opposing soccer team and the player's mother. Hawkes, who witnessed the interaction, told the mother and son to leave the premises immediately. A no-trespass order was issued against the mother so that she could not attend any other games at the school. One concerned student wrote to the athletic director of the other school and to the VPA explaining what had happened, Hawkes said, and in both cases was directed back to his own athletic director.

"So, it's just this sense of, Where do we go with our concerns to be heard?" Hawkes said. "These incidents have a real impact on people's sense of belonging."

Hawkes, who serves as director of school leadership programs for the Upper Valley Educators Institute, said he believes that the VPA could be part of a task force to help schools think through how to handle and repair the harm caused by racial harassment.

Nichols said the VPA has already begun making changes. It will soon require a mandatory antibias online training for all coaches and officials. A new diversity, equity and inclusion committee will develop a system for coaches and administrators to report "racially related incidents" at high school sporting events.

South Burlington athletic director Mike Jabour, who cochairs that committee, said such reports will allow the VPA to identify officials who show a pattern of racial bias, as well as teams that are repeat offenders.

The VPA already has a policy for "unsportsmanlike behavior," which covers vulgar and racist taunting. But the association is also considering whether it should create a hate speech policy similar to one adopted by the Illinois High School Association in 2020, Jabour said. That policy gives officials the authority to eject any athlete whom they witness committing an act of hate speech or harassment.

"I think, if we're truly wanting to be anti-racist schools, we need to disrupt," Milton superintendent Rex said, and that means addressing behaviors right when they happen. Better training for coaches and referees on what they should do when an accusation is made during a game — rather than just saying "Knock it off" — could be part of that.

Jabour, who is Black and played football at South Burlington High School, said he sometimes heard racist comments — more often in school than on the playing field — but learned to shrug them off. He acknowledges that it's often difficult to prove racism.

"That's the piece that needs to be figured out," Jabour said. "Are we looking for proof, or are we going to support students of color [so] that if they have a report, it's taken seriously?"

Nichols maintains that it's hard to levy any consequences on players when there isn't concrete evidence.

"We need to believe kids and respect what they're saying, but at the same time, we're not going to punish other kids when we can't prove that they did it," Nichols said.

Burlington School District athletic director Quaron Pinckney, who cochairs the Vermont Principals' Association's diversity, equity and inclusion committee with Jabour, said he believes that the VPA and the Vermont State Athletic Directors Association both have a role in developing a "universal process" that delineates how students should report racial abuse, where the report goes and what the follow-up process looks like.

"If there's no follow-through for those students and they don't know what's happened, it's going to really impact whether they continue to report these things moving forward," said Pinckney, who is Black and grew up in New York City, then played basketball for Saint Michael's College.

One of the things Pinckney said he's taken away from the Winooski-Enosburg situation is how important it is for adults in positions of authority to believe student athletes who report racial abuse.

"We have to take it seriously and ... go through a due process," Pinckney said. "Just them knowing that we took action right away ... it might save that student from quitting sports altogether."

Winooski athlete Osman said she contemplated giving up basketball after the incident involving her teammate, but she's planning to play this year. She has younger nieces and hopes they won't be subjected to mistreatment should they choose to play sports in high school.

"I just want people to realize what they're doing could hurt other people," Osman said, "and we should just respect each other."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Foul Play"