No one should be demeaned, marginalized, or subjected to dehumanizing identity attacks, no matter their sexual orientation, the amount of money they have, the languages they speak, their gender, their age, their abilities, or the color of their skin. And although we, as a society, have taken many important steps, there remains a great deal of growth and opportunity to improve.
Parents, guardians, educators, coaches, students, and community members can almost always agree on the goal of schools being particularly important places, places where such experiences should never occur, and if they do, should be met with interventions that better prevent, protect, and teach in order to move forward in a safer, more just, and stronger community. School athletics are no different.
Last week, the Vermont Principals Association began working with two schools, Winooski High School and Enosburg Falls High School based on serious concerns and reports coming from each school about a soccer game between the two schools on September 18th. Enosburg reported and shared a video of a Winooski player headbutting an Enosburg player, and Winooski reported their players experiencing repeated racist, dehumanizing comments coming from some Enosburg players and from some of the Enosburg fans. The VPA followed established protocols, asking the given school leaders to conduct their own investigations and report findings to the Vermont Principals’ Association.
During the time of investigation, Winooski Superintendent Sean McMannon issued a public statement about the game and the racial slurs as reported to him. Superintendent McMannon shared that the experience is a common one for their student athletes, bringing important context to the issue. In the statement he calls upon the Vermont Principals’ Association to “Implement robust antiracism training for all middle and high school sports officials and coaches, develop mandatory procedures to report racial abuse and violence, and partner with school districts to ensure thorough and fair investigations of any reports of racial abuse.”
In this instance, we will continue to work with each of the given schools so that a safe and healthy student athletic environment can be assured for each team, no matter who and where they play, and certainly when next matched with each other. A part of our shared commitment to all of the students is also an expectation that the adults at such events will set a positive example. If fans at any given event are unable to support sportsmanship and recognize the importance and value of all the student athletes—no matter the team, then they are unwelcome to attend. As a community, we need to partner to ensure anyone attending the games participates in a respectful manner, and in no case will hate speech of any kind be tolerated.
The Vermont Principals’ Association welcomes the opportunity for continual improvement to better serve our members and communities. The VPA began implementing anti-bias training for coaches and referees at the start of the 2021 fall sports season. That work is an outgrowth of the leadership provided by the recently founded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Activities Committee (spring 2021). The Committee has identified issues similar to those as reported by Winooski as vital for the work of the VPA. Improved procedures and strategies going forward to better support student athletes, administrators, coaches, spectators and officials to know how to report, respond to, and reconcile any violations of prejudice, verbal or physical violence are paramount. This occasion reinforces the need for that work to be thorough, inclusive, and timely.
Examples of recent steps the VPA has taken in regards to student athletics:
● Formation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Activities Committee (Spring 2021)
● Adopted on August 6th, 2021 mandatory anti-bias training for all coaches beginning this winter sports season (Many coaches have already begun this process under athletic director leadership)
● Adopted on August 6th, 2021 mandatory anti-bias training for all officials beginning in the fall of 2022 (Many officials have already begun this process within their own officiating organizations)
● At a recent officials meeting (9/24/21), there was a decision made to begin immediately developing a reporting system for any racially related incidents at any high school sporting event in Vermont.
The VPA has always and will always condemn racist actions in schools and activities. We are committed to providing all student athletes with a safe and positive environment. We will continue working with Vermont schools to improve equity in our state for all of our students.
Robert Johnson is Associate Executive Director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.