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How officials are handling the latest allegations of racist behavior in Vt. high school sports

A photo of an empty gym with a wooden floor, a basketball hoop on the far wall, and a basketball on the floor.
Dusan Stankovic/Getty Images
Earlier this month, the Middlebury Union High School girls basketball team refused to play Enosburg Falls High School, citing an Instagram post with what they described as, “racist attacks from Enosburg spectators.”

Earlier this month, the Middlebury Union High School girls basketball team refused to play Enosburg Falls High School, citing an Instagram post with what they described as “racist attacks from Enosburg spectators.”

Last week, Vermont Editionhost Connor Cyrus spoke with three student-athletes and the coach of the Middlebury Union High School girls basketball team about their decision to skip the game.

Here’s what Cady Pitner, a senior at Middlebury Union High School who plays for the girls basketball team, said about why the Tigers decided not to play:

"We wanted to see a little bit more action on their part and within their school, because we had talked about having no fans, and weren’t really getting the support we had wanted from that. And it seemed like they weren’t really doing a lot within their schools to make amends for what happened, and kind of educate their students and change things. They seemed to be very focused on the specific individuals rather than looking at the school as a whole and thinking about the things they could do."

Lynn Cota is the superintendent of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, of which Enosburg Falls High School is a part. She spoke on behalf of the Enosburg administration and coaches, confirming that racist incidents did occur, and that the district is committed to creating a safe environment:

“Unfortunately, two incidents with students making racist comments last winter and this fall did occur. When Middlebury educators shared the concerns of the girls’ basketball team, we discussed a number of steps, such as increased supervision; and playing the game in a closed gym with only the teams. In the interest of all students, Enosburg educators and our team agreed to everything requested by the Middlebury team. Ultimately, Middlebury’s team decided they would not come to Enosburg or play at all.”

More from Vermont Edition: Middlebury high girls' basketball players share how racist comments affect their team

Middlebury is not the only team to cancel games recently over racist remarks.

This month, Burlington High School and Rice Memorial High School postponed their games against Champlain Valley Union High School after a racially-charged TikTok was posted.

And in the last two years, allegations of racist and sexist comments surfaced at a Burlington/South Burlington high school girls volleyball game, and at aHartford High School girls soccer game against Fair Haven Union High.

In the fall of 2021, complaints of racist slurs at a Winooski soccer game against Enosburg led to new protocols for coaches and sports officials in the state. But are those new protocols helping?

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, about what the VPA is doing to address these issues, and prevent future harassment at high school sporting events. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: The VPA oversees high school athletics in the state. What is the VPA currently doing to address this issue of racism at sporting events?

Jay Nichols: So first of all, I was interviewed the other day by VTDigger. And in that article, I was quoted as saying that these are isolated events. And that's not really what the context of the article was. We were talking about games being canceled. And what I said is, those are isolated events. So it's not isolated events that there had been reports, and we are hearing more reports, because we made it easier for students, other stakeholders to report concerns. And because I think schools are doing a really good job of saying to kids, "You know, this isn’t alright, we encourage you to speak out," and so kids are speaking out. From our perspective, that's a good thing.

You and I spoke about this, I think over a year ago, actually, with the Winooski incident, and there have been new protocols put in place. How specifically are coaches and officials equipped to handle things like racist comments and behavior at sporting events?

Well first of all, there's a pre-game statement that's to be read at every event, or put on rosters as parents come in, some people have posted it on signage in their buildings. And it talks about expectations, possible interventions and restrictions that are applicable to all schools and teams.

Additionally, all coaches and officials have to complete at NFHS. That's the National Federation of High Schools implicit bias course. We require that.

We also have the reporting form that is open and active year-round, where anybody can report anything to us. And there's been action taken against individuals — I mean, at least one coach has lost their job over behavior that was reported on that site. And there have been disciplinary sanctions handed down to people, students and teams.

And there's been lots of training for the adults. You know, it's different — you don't have a right to come to a game if you're going to hurt the learning environment of the kids, then you need to be removed. We have no problem removing you, we have no problem banning you from events. And typically it's not a parent. In fact, most of the cases that we're talking about are people that either used to go to the school, or in a couple cases, students or people that were former students that moved back into an area that are young adults now and are making real stupid choices, and everybody's seeing the consequences of those choices.

"What we are telling you is, your behavior is not going to be tolerated. If it's racist, sexist, singles-out an individual player or a coach or official and crosses that line, and when you do that, — and we've got several parents we've banned for the whole year this year — and we have no problem supporting schools and doing that."
Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association

This incident, the most recent one, did not happen at a game itself. It happened because there was an Instagram video with racist content that was posted. So I'm wondering if the VPA has to do more in expanding its rules and protocol over what happens off the court as well as in the stands during a game, for example?

That’s a good question. And the truth is that schools have a limited ability to discipline students for their out-of-school conduct. But what they can do, because the person involved was a student-athlete, they can take action against them as a student-athlete, and things that can include suspension of games, captainships removed from a team, there's lots of different things they can take.

So in this particular case, they've taken action against the student, they've provided educational components to the student. And as far as we're concerned, the situation has been dealt with, and dealt with appropriately. The student made a mistake. And it's time that we move on from that mistake. And teams that don't play going forward, essentially, are forfeiting the game.

What do you think about the Middlebury High School girls basketball team’s decision not to play Enosburg Falls High School, do you support that decision?

Well, in this particular case, Middlebury and Enosburg weren't able to come to a resolution, and the Middlebury perspective was, they came to a resolution they thought might work, but came to it too late. And at that point, their players were not feeling heard. And I'm not saying they weren't heard. I think that Enosburg is doing the best they can with it, too. And because of that, I had conversations with officials from both school districts, and we decided that if the teams weren't going to play, that the most appropriate action for that game would to be to have it be no game. But the Middlebury harm that happened at a Enosburg event was verified. As a result of that, Middlebury kids felt that they were being targeted, and the decision not to play, and we support that.

I am wondering, given that it is almost impossible to change people's behaviors, you can only hope that they'll listen to a conversation and do and be better. Should the VPA though, be doing more to enlarge this conversation to have these conversations more often, more intensely, to let people know that this kind of behavior, whether it's in the stands or on social media, is simply not acceptable in Vermont high school sports?

Well, I think it's a message that we have to keep putting out there. And I think the way we do that is through the local schools. Sometimes people talk about the VPA, and they think of the VPA as this big organization. We have five employees for the whole state of Vermont. We're a member-driven organization. So it's really the athletic directors, the school principals, superintendents, the coaches, and the fans themselves that have to do a lot of this work.

However, I do want to disagree on one thing you said. You said it's not possible to change behavior. I think that's not true. I think the research shows us it is possible to change behavior. What's not possible is to change beliefs. If you want to go to a basketball game, and you've got some beliefs that we don't agree with, whatever they might be, that's fine. Just keep your — be quiet about it, and just cheer the kids on appropriately. What we are telling you is, your behavior is not going to be tolerated. If it's racist, sexist, singles-out an individual player or a coach or official and crosses that line, and when you do that, — and we've got several parents we've banned for the whole year this year — and we have no problem supporting schools and doing that.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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