Parents, side by side, held signs calling for Superintendent Toni Shute to resign.
“Give Shute the boot,” they chanted outside of a packed Oct. 9 Brooke County School District board meeting in Wellsburg, W.Va.
The parents were angry about a letter Shute sent to the Pittsburgh Public Schools' superintendent for what Shute called an “insensitive, intimidating and offensive sign,” that her students affixed to the front of the bleachers before a football game against Pittsburgh's Perry High School.
“I don’t agree with how she worded her apology,” said Brooke parent Billie Riggs. “She could have said, ‘I’m sorry that that’s how you felt.’ Not that, ‘I’m sorry they did this to you.’”
Riggs held a sign that read, “We love our Brooke Students. You did nothing wrong.”
Brooke vs. Perry
On a humid Friday night in late September, the mostly-black Perry High School football team walked onto Brooke High School’s field in Wellsburg. They saw stands packed with white students wearing red, white and blue behind a sign that read “TRUMP PERRY.”
Trump, in this case, meaning defeat, but also invoking the name of a President who that same night used an Alabama campaign rally to rail against NFL players who had been kneeling in protest of police brutality.
When a photo of the banner was posted on social media, people outside Wellsburg said the sign was, at best, in poor taste, and at worst, racial intimidation. Brooke students said the patriotic theme had been planned for months, and usually fell the weekend before or after Sept. 11.
Shute issued the letter of apology, which Brooke parents said unfairly labeled their children as racists.
“My daughter was in the stands that night with those kids,” Riggs said. “She’s not a racist and I’m standing up for her.”
Inside the school board meeting, 32-year-old Dierdre Cochrane told the board that the sign reflected the racism she experienced as a black student at Brooke. Her younger brother now plays football for the team, she said, and asked that the district bring in diversity training.
“This is your fault," she said. "This isn’t their students’ fault. It’s their parents fault because nobody is here and willing to be educated about what it is to be other than what you look like.”
Some parents started a petition calling for Shute to resign that stated “children under our education system should be taught that freedom of expression is allowed and that the superintendent, as well as other educators, should not press upon students their personal political beliefs and political correctness.”
Ashley Eby, a senior at Brooke High School and Student Council President, helped make the sign. She said in hindsight she sees how it could have been offensive, but that it wasn’t on purpose, and no one told them to take it down.
“If I were issuing the statement, I would have still apologized because I believe that if you offend someone you should apologize,” she said. “However, I think that by explaining that it wasn’t intentional and giving a little bit of context about what happened at the game, it would have given Pittsburgh Perry the opportunity to understand where we were coming from.”
Shute still has her job. After the uproar from the apology, she released a statement that read “when we offend or hurt someone, we apologize, even when we didn’t mean to offend. What occurred at the game Friday night was a result of a lack of guidance from our administration.”
Not on the record
The Pittsburgh school district wants to move on. Following the apology letter, PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet released a statement about the sign that had “dismayed many constituents.”
“Since the Presidential campaign, superintendents across the country have found themselves apologizing for the use of President Donald Trump’s name to taunt minority students,” his statement read. “After speaking with several individuals in attendance at the game, we learned that despite the sign, no further incidents occurred and both teams displayed good sportsmanship towards each other.”
After attempts to talk to students and coaches from Perry High School, the district’s spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said in a text message that the district did not want to rehash the incident with their students.
At a regular season game a couple of weeks later, Perry parents in the stands were also reluctant to speak on record.
That’s nothing new, said Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, who studies race and social justice. It’s easier in the moment, he said, to move on because of the historic repercussions minorities have experienced when they've spoken out.
“There was such a backlash to black protests that they figure, ‘Hey, let’s just let it go, go on about our business,’” he said.
Valley vs. Lincoln
Pittsburgh and Brooke aren’t the only school administrations struggling to confront student behavior on the football field.
The week before students in West Virginia unveiled the controversial sign, a game in Westmoreland County ended with a bench-clearing fight with two minutes left in the game.
Players on the largely diverse Valley High School team accused players on the predominantly white Lincoln High School team of using racial slurs throughout the game. Ellwood City School District Superintendent Joe Mancini said although the students didn’t admit it, he assumed they were in the wrong.
“Whether you like that or not, we’re going to deal with this. That was our message to the team,” Mancini said. “Having athletics is a privilege, not a right in the school.”
Both schools were put on probation by the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, which spans nine counties.
Ellwood City District was also asked to write a sportsmanship plan. Mancini said that resulted in creating a diversity committee to review the district’s parent-player handbook. All of the high school’s athletic teams also now shake hands with the other team before the game. That’s all in part, because, as Mancini said, people are losing sight of the purpose of high school competition.
“The No. 1 goal of high school athletics should be to teach kids how to overcome adversity, how to overcome setbacks and then using that experience to prepare them for life, not to cause hardships and to cause fights,” he said.
Sports tend to reflect bigger social tensions, especially for kids who are targets, Mancini said. But for some students, he said, the game isn’t teaching them to overcome adversity -- it’s creating it.