By Shaun Robinson/VTDigger
They’re just trying to play sports.
But Vermont student-athletes are often jeered and shouted down by fans in the stands, officials say, including with targeted hate speech.
“I’ve been an athletic director for eight years now,” said Michael Jabour, who oversees sports at South Burlington High School. “And verbal abuse that student-athletes face has been very consistent.”
Jabour and other athletic leaders in Vermont say allegations of abuse must be addressed immediately so students feel their voices are being heard.
A committee he co-chairs within the Vermont Principals’ Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports, is developing a more formal process for addressing abuse.
Their work comes amid several high-profile reports of teenage athletes getting harassed during games in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, “racial and transphobic slurs were directed” at Burlington High School girls volleyball players during a game against South Burlington High, according to a joint statement Friday from both city’s school districts.
The referee was alerted to the incident and stopped play to speak with the coaches and players, then decided to stop the match, according to the statement. South Burlington High officials are now investigating a possible violation of the district’s hazing, harassment and bullying policy with Burlington High’s cooperation.
And on Thursday, the Hartford High School girls soccer team walked off the field with six minutes remaining in a game at Fair Haven Union High School because of alleged sexual harassment from the stands, the Valley News reported. At least one Hartford High player was subjected to harassment from the Fair Haven student section, head coach Jeff Acker told the newspaper. In a Facebook post, a Hartford parent wrote that the comments were “outright sexual harassment — barking, ‘hey, tuck in your shirt so we can see your ass!’”
Both incidents come after the Winooski School District superintendent said the city’s high school boys’ soccer team faced racist abuse during a game against Enosburg Falls High School last month. The superintendent also called on the principals’ association to take stronger actions against racism.
Following the superintendent’s statement, hundreds of people came out to support the Winooski team at their home game on Sept. 28.
‘Take my claim seriously’
Jabour and Quaron Pinckney, athletic director at Burlington High, are co-chairs of the Vermont Principals’ Association’s committee on diversity, equity and inclusion, the group working to develop a process for students and coaches to report abuse.
The committee’s scope includes considering racist, verbal and physical abuse. Verbal abuse could range from unsportsmanlike taunting to hate speech. Pinckney said he thinks if a student reports abuse during a game and can identify the culprit, the game should be stopped immediately. If the culprit can’t be identified right away, both teams should get a warning that the game will be called off if the abuse continues, he said.
He believes it’s important to have a process like this so that students feel an incentive to report abusive behavior.
“That will create that safe space for our student-athletes to know, OK, the adults and the officials that are on-site are going to take my claim seriously,” Pinckney said. “And they’re going to follow through with us, and there’s going to be a due process.”
Pinckney said the principals’ association’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee also wants to build a log of every abuse report, which could be used to identify any regions, districts or individual schools that are repeat offenders.
The association could then work specifically with those communities to try to prevent future abuse.
“No community is immune to it,” Jabour said of the abuse. “At one point, you could be the victim. And then, another week, you could be the accused.”
The association is also considering having a message read before every athletic event that addresses abuse coming from spectators, Executive Director Jay Nichols said. He said the association has a small staff and can’t conduct thorough investigations of alleged abuse. Instead they ask schools to investigate and provide a report.
“We’re waiting for what comes out of Enosburg and Winooski,” Nichols said. “They’re the two that have the kids, and they’re the ones that have to give us the information.”
When the principals’ association isn’t directly involved, though, Pinckney said he’s seen many reports of abuse “hit a dead end.” Investigations often rely too heavily on athletic directors, he said, whereas the association could leverage its role as a third party.
“Really hear both sides,” he said, “and come to a positive resolution.”
Asked at a press conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, if there should be more state oversight of school sports, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French said additional regulations could create transparency, but might also be less responsive to changes.
“If there’s persistent patterns of this type of behavior,” he said referring to the racist abuse described in Winooski last month, “we have to err on the side of taking action and figuring out how to make our systems more responsive.”
Jabour said discussion of how to improve verbal abuse reporting in school sports should have started “a long time ago,” though he’s glad recent events have brought more awareness to the issue.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “But the fact that we’re now having a conversation, and we’re asking these questions, is going to help us in the long run.”