An Explosive Situation???

By Alan Goldenbach and Daniel de Vise
Updated: September 24, 2008

MARYLAND — The Office of Civil Rights in the Maryland attorney general’s office has begun an investigation into last Friday’s high school football game between Dunbar and Fort Hill, which ended in the third quarter when Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies pulled his team off the field after his players said they were subjected to racial slurs from opposing players.

“We are looking at this incident,” Carl O. Snowden, director of the Office of Civil Rights, said yesterday. “From what we have seen previously, it’s not surprising that there are claims of racial taunts.”

Last spring, tensions rose at Fort Hill, a high school in Cumberland, Md., after two students were suspended following an argument that allegedly included racist epithets.

Subsequently, some students began displaying the Confederate flag on their clothes and trucks, prompting Fort Hill Principal Steve Lewis to ban the flag’s display at school.

An investigation of the flag display is ongoing, according to a spokesman from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who declined further comment.

Fort Hill Coach Todd Appel said the flag issue was in the back of his mind when Jefferies made his allegations. “We had an incident here last year,” Appel said Saturday, “and it’s not something we want to be associated with.”

Snowden said the flag incident, coupled with last Friday’s allegations, raised concerns in his office. “If, indeed, this occurred,” he said, “then there is a pattern developing that shows a systemic problem.”

Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said his organization is gathering reports from both schools and will not make a determination on the outcome of the game — either a Dunbar forfeit or a no-contest — until that information is received.

Dunbar was leading 14-8 Friday when Jefferies pulled his team off the field. Appel said in a memo to Lewis that referee Bob Broadwater told him the score would be recorded as 15-14 in Fort Hill’s favor.

Jefferies said Friday he made the decision after his players said they were subjected to repeated racial epithets and that he thought if he hadn’t, a fight would have broken out.

“The worst-case scenario was a fight, which was inevitable at that point,” he said the next day. “You could feel the sense of being uncomfortable in that stadium, and I had to do something proactive.”

Danielle Lee and Mercedes Nelson, both 14 and in ninth grade at Fort Hill, said yesterday that they attended Friday’s game and that it wasn’t clear from the grandstands what actually happened. They said they saw the visiting team walk off the field, without explanation, amid shouts.

Lee, who is black, said accounts from classmates afterward convinced her the exchange was “probably just trash talk.” Nelson, who is white, said talk around the school generally found fault with the visiting team. “Everybody just kept saying they were playing dirty, like cussing and stuff,” Nelson said.

Accounts of the scene from four police officers, one game referee, two Fort Hill school officials and Appel released yesterday by the Allegany County Board of Education described unruly behavior by Fort Hill fans and players from both teams but said no racial slurs were heard. Jefferies said neither he nor anyone from Dunbar was contacted for the report.

Lewis did not return messages seeking comment yesterday. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee requested school employees offer no further comment.

Jacob Watkins, Danielle Lee’s stepfather, who is black, said his family has not witnessed an unusual amount of racial tension at the school or in the Cumberland community.

“Racial problems exist just about everywhere,” he said. “The main thing is, we need to teach kids about tolerance. . . . The way my mother trained me — you give respect, you get respect.”

Another D.C. public high school football team, McKinley, is scheduled to play at Fort Hill on Oct. 3, but McKinley Coach Cornell Simms said yesterday that his school is weighing whether it should opt out.

Simms said the two schools signed a one-game contract three weeks ago, after Appel noticed the two schools shared an open date. Simms said the contract calls for McKinley to be paid $3,000 for the game but that it has no-penalty clause if McKinley does not show up.

“We have to look at the ramifications of what transpired there,” McKinley Athletic Director Wanda Oliver-McKenzie said. “We certainly will not knowingly put our students in danger. We will make a decision, but only after all the facts are reviewed and consequences weighed.”

NOTE: De Vise reported from Cumberland, Md.