Last Friday night, Wilton High School varsity basketball players faced off against a team from New Britain High School in the post-season state tournament. The game was a heartbreaker, not only on the court, where the Warriors fell to their opponents 64-63 in the last seconds of the game, but also off the court. Two days after the matchup, New Britain school administrators contacted superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith about Wilton student spectators at the game who they say were chanting racist slurs at the visiting players.
In the days since then, video footage has surfaced from the game, and was posted on Instagram by a New Britain High School student on Monday afternoon. [Editor’s Note: The post was originally public, but it has since been made private. We link to it below but it may not be visible any longer with the privacy setting switch.] The footage shows the WHS student section in the bleachers, chanting as a New Britain player takes a foul shot. Exactly what the students were chanting has become the focus of attention, as members of the New Britain community say the chants were racist shouts of “blackface” directed at an African American player at the foul line; Wilton administrators say their students were chanting “leg day,” a taunt referring to a type of workout regimen and the physical appearance of the New Britain athlete.
Smith sat down with GOOD Morning Wilton shortly after the video appeared on Instagram. While he believes the Warrior fans were not chanting racist words, he’s not happy with how the students’ conduct is reflecting on Wilton.
“First and foremost, I’m deeply distressed and very sorry that anyone would walk into our gym and develop an impression that our students were using racial slurs. I’m very sorry that some folks had that experience,” he says.
School administrators have been investigating the incident, watching their own video from the game, and interviewing students and faculty who were there Friday night.
See our video below and judge for yourself…
“Individually and independently, what each of those students reported is that the chant was ‘leg day.’ The student who created it was suggesting that the shooter’s legs were skinny and would benefit from time in the gym. A number of other students confirmed that that’s what they were chanting, and one of the adults that was stationed in front of the student section confirmed that he heard chatter along those lines,” Smith explains.
High school principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell, who was also at the game, gave more details about what administrators have learned.
“We were able to confirm through two of the adult supervisors right there, who position themselves right in front of the fans, and also both trainers, they all confirmed they had not heard ‘blackface.’ None of us heard it, the trainers and one supervisor remember hearing a ‘leg day’ chant and comments. They remember distinctly hearing that. Separately and independently they reported hearing that. I’m convinced based on what they said that a ‘blackface’ comment was not made.”
Wilton’s superintendent was a spectator in the crowd that evening, and says he did not hear Wilton students chant anything racist.
“I was at the game with my 10 year old. I know I didn’t hear any racial slur. I’m sure if any of the gentlemen around me did, we would have spoken up. I’m very confident about that.”
Even if the chants were not racist in nature, Smith says that’s no excuse for the students’ behavior in the first place.
“That being said, it’s still grossly inappropriate that our students would chant anything at another player that’s disrespectful. It doesn’t reflect well on us. It’s embarrassing. We’re going to continue to work with our students about better sportsmanship and being better spectators when they’re representing Wilton.”
Not only did Smith speak with the New Britain superintendent but O’Donnell and WHS athletic director Chris McDougal have been in contact with their New Britain counterparts. Smith says he will reach out again on Tuesday and has plans to extend an apology from the Wilton school community.
“I do believe there is some restoration that we need to make to that community. I think it’s inappropriate that our students would be chanting anything derogatory about another student. I believe it wasn’t a racial epithet. Setting that aside, our spectator expectations are very clear and our students have been reminded of that. Simply put, we need to do better. We’ll be working on a letter that we’ll send to the superintendent and that school community. ”
He continues, “I certainly want to apologize again for anyone who left with the impression that our students might have been chanting a racial epithet–or that we in this town in any way, shape or form would condone that. That’s absolutely not the case. I hope we can move forward from this and continue a good relationship with that school and that district.”
Smith acknowledges that it’s not the first time Wilton has faced accusations of racism toward other communities. It’s a charge that may be easy to level at a community like Wilton with growing, but still limited ethnic and racial diversity. Still, he says it’s unfair for people to be quick to assume Wilton would be likely to have done it, and that it must be true.
“I think that’s an unfair characterization. I spend quite a lot of time in this town, I know many of the students and families and I don’t think that’s a sentiment that’s widely held in this community. It’s certainly not reflective of any of our espoused values, so I think it’s unfair. That being said, our nation is divided today. As educators, as a school community, we have to work relentlessly in promoting values and bringing people together.”
New Britain Superintendent: I Hear Something Different
Nancy Sarra, the superintendent of the New Britain School District, has a very different perspective–and she’s not convinced there was no racial slur.
“I hear something different,” she says. What’s more, she asserts that the New Britain High School athletic director Len Corto was at the game and told her “…these things were being said. He went over by the students and those comments stopped.”
Beyond that she didn’t want to comment specifically on what Wilton administrators had told her as of Monday.
She did, however, have much to say reflecting on the debate around civility in general.
“It’s sad in our society that these words are even spoken to anyone. This should never be directed to a person–what’s most important is how to be civil and good to one another. It saddens me to look at our nation, that 2-3 years ago you’d never hear something like that. To be on guard for racial or sexist comments–as a nation, we need to look at how we are raising our children. It’s disheartening that these are conversations we have to have in 2019, that we have to take this call and talk about it.”
Sarra was appreciative of Smith’s outreach. “Dr. Smith was very forthcoming,” noting that he responded very quickly after she first contacted him Saturday, had kept her informed about what Wilton administrators learned through their interviews with students on Monday, and promised to get back in touch on Tuesday. “He was very responsive,” she added.
Getting a letter of apology that Smith says will be sent will likely be well received. “I’m anxious and hopeful that there will be some formal apology,” says Sarra. That, and an indication that last Friday’s events will be addressed at Wilton High School.
“Our job is to educate young men and women. It is through the lens of education that these conversations are had. These things happen and the worst thing to do is cover it up or not address it head on with the kids and the adults. We all have biases, the important thing is to recognize it–if we don’t discuss it and bring it to the table, how can we move forward from here?”
Most important to Sarra was acknowledging how her New Britain students have responded in the days since then. She points to comments on social media that her students have made. “I’m really proud of them for taking a stand, I’m proud of the mature ways they are handling it. I have to help my students and administrators, to understand that they have power as well.”
Dr. O’Donnell: Where the High School Goes From Here
WHS principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell knows there is much to reflect on following the game with New Britain.
“It’s my belief we had two good teams and two good programs, competing in a game with well meaning student athletes and coaches, and it’s unfortunate that such a wonderful, close event in a state tournament can be turned into something where there’s conversations about a lack of civility,” he says.
Like Smith, O’Donnell plans on extending an apology to the New Britain community.
“We have every intention of apologizing to that student athlete and his family, and the New Britain High School community. Something like that is unacceptable,” he says. “I have already crafted a letter ready to be sent to the super and principal and AD, that can be shared with the student athletes and anyone who took offense or feels marginalized. that needs to happen and that will happen.
O’Donnell has strong words for his Wilton students as well.
“I have and Chris [McDougal] has also, the greatest respect for the student athlete that came to play, and the athletic program and coaches. Having said that, for our WHS students to specifically comment on the physical appearance of a student athlete competitor is deplorable. We have the expectations that students will cheer for our team and not against the other team–that’s a fundamental expectation in student athletics. I denounce our kids for saying this.”
He says the school will continue to work at improving student behavior.
“We are clearly an educational institution, and there is learning at every opportunity. Interscholastic athletics is fertile ground for learning, sometimes we see what works well and it’s to be celebrated, but sometimes we can fall short. We have very high expectations for our students for their behavior, and how they treat each other and our opponents. There have been times we have not been proud of our student spectators’ behaviors and we have to get that right.”
But can the students expect any repercussions for the behaviors demonstrated Friday night?
” There may and will be, we have to sort through it. There are a lot of students in the stands, when they get into these chants, it’s difficult to discern who is responsible for it all. But it will be part of the conversation, as we look toward next year. We have clear guidelines in the school handbook about the role of fans, parents, athletes, but we need to outline exactly how we’re going to handle a situation when students don’t meet the expectations, so we know in advance the clear expectations and how it will be handled.”
O’Donnell stresses how important it is to continue reinforcing and teach the students. “We all share a mutual responsibility that we respect our program, that we show the highest level of respect for our opponents. We’re all the same, and there has got to be a human element of caring and respect. That is what we need to strive toward.”
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GOOD AFTERNOON @goodmorningwilton @wiltonhighschool!!! Imagine being a YOUNG African American student participating in a basketball school only to have students of the opposite race chanting “BLACKFACE” less than ten feet away from your face. This is Friday nights basketball game of New Britain Highshool Vs. Wilton High School. I’d thought I’d show this lovely behavior of your students at WILTON HIGH SCHOOL! Aren’t these your students who represent such a GOOD TOWN? Just wondering. I’d love to know what “BLACKFACE” has anything to do with basketball because I seem to be misunderstanding. @theellenshow @espn @nbcnews #wiltonhighschool #wiltonct #racismatitsbest #racist @mrzayas @erinstewartct @csdnbct