LEXINGTON — Four times at four schools for four sporting events this school year Lexington student athletes have encountered an American theme promoted by the school where they were competing.
"In at least three of those four places, students and parents came back and reported they were denigrated and there were racist overtures," said Lexington Public Schools Superintendent John Hakonson.
He said there were some comments and actions that were "entirely racist and bullying." One comment directed to an Asian student was reportedly, "Go back home where you belong. I can’t believe how un-American you guys are," he said. There have also been cross the border chants.
"It’s all wrapped up in the theme of American Night which appears to have emboldened some to cross a line," said Hakonson. He said wearing red, white and blue is not offensive, nor is waving an American flag, but when Trump flags are present that can be perceived differently.
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Hakonson said the use of a laser pointer, being flipped off and border chants are examples of unacceptable behavior, while banners and attire are protected by free speech and first amendment rights.
Hakonson said he doesn’t want to alienate the other schools Lexington plays, but people should consider their words and actions and how it comes across.
"Even if it is legal, it doesn’t make it right, if you are insulting people on the other side of the court," said Hakonson.
The most recent incident occurred when the Lexington Middle School eighth grade girls volleyball team played in North Platte on Thursday. Outrage on social media following the game focused on a photo of a boy wearing a T-shirt that read "Border Patrol."
LMS Principal Scott West and Hakonson met with the team on Friday to discuss what happened and Hakonson said he was in contact with school officials in North Platte.
North Platte Public School’s Associate Superintendent Tami Eshleman said it is disheartening that the way a student was dressed, which was addressed by a school administrator who had the student change 30 minutes prior to a game, would be used to portray the school in a negative light. She said the matter was taken care of and the rest of the game was respectful by both sides.
In the matter of a laser pointer being used, she said it was confiscated as soon as it was seen by a school official.
"I stand behind my statement as quoted to media earlier, the actions of one student should not be used to generalize an entire study body, school or district," said Eshleman.
When asked if there had been other complaints regarding North Platte by other schools she said, "In my eight years as an administrator I can say this is a very rare event."
She said it has been an opportunity to educate and promote values.
North Platte Superintendent Ron Hanson said as he talked with Hakonson on Friday he listened and wrote down what was shared to conduct an investigation. He said he found no validation of accusations of finger flipping or racial slurs.
"We take these things very seriously," said Hanson. "We want to do what’s best for our students and the students in Lexington. We reassure the people in Lexington that the adults in this matter take this very seriously and we want to do what’s best for all children."
Hakonson said he would prefer not to get into naming specific districts, when asked about other incidents of mistreatment.
He said as allegations were reported to school administrators they were investigated and he felt the concerns were taken to heart by the offending districts. "I think they have done their due diligence in investigating and taking action where action is due," he said.
Hakonson said he is asked "What are you doing to protect our students?" He said when he receives reports of racism or bullying he talks with the appropriate administrators in neighboring districts.
He noted that historically Lexington has had to deal with negative comments and a negative perception. He said usually the things that happen are handled quietly, without public awareness, but they are dealt with.
He confirmed that a couple of years ago during a district track meet a student participating in a line jump competition was announced by an adult as being from "Mexington." He said the incident was reported to the NSAA (Nebraska State Athletic Association) and action was taken. "Sometimes what happens behind the scenes is not well known to the public," said Hakonson.
Hakonson said he has tried to have an open mind and not be cynical regarding the American themes used when the competition is against Lexington. "It could very well be it is coincidence," he said.
He said some of what Lexington has encountered with the American theme is probably protected by the first amendment and free speech, although in poor taste. Racism has also been "sprinkled in."
"In fairness to them they are getting a different perspective from their patrons," said Hakonson of the districts Lexington competes against.
He tells Lexington students and fans, "Even if you are insulted by that behavior, the other team or school may not have intended it."
"We are trying to keep a cool head on this," he said.
He said he is trying to strike the balance between "take the high road" which is something Lexington students are taught to do and being an advocate for the students.
Melissa Wheelock, superintendent of Minden Public Schools, said prior to the Minden high school volleyball game concern was raised over a Trump banner and the school’s athletic director went over and had it removed. In the case of a student wearing a poncho she said, "We felt there was no intent on cultural disrespect."
She said later there were reports of racial chants during the competition, but no such chants were heard by the Minden athletic director nor by the Lexington administrator in attendance at the event. She also said no concerns of this nature were brought forward to any Minden official at the game.
"If those things were heard or reported they would have been immediately addressed," said Wheelock.
She said follow-up phone calls between Minden and Lexington the next day were customary and based on the concerns that came to light at the game regarding the banner and how a student was dressed.
She looked into the subsequent report of chants, but found no evidence of a group chant.
"We have apologized if anyone felt disrespect while in Minden. It is certainly not anything we would condone. We care for all students in neighboring communities and want them to feel welcome in our district," said Wheelock.
Lexington parents Darin and Lisa Buescher said they attended the Minden game Aug. 31 with their daughter Mallorie, who is a cheerleader, and actions during the event "struck a chord" so they shared their concerns with Lexington’s athletic director Phil Truax.
Now, five weeks later, Lexington students and fans are still reporting concerns with other schools and the topic has exploded on social media.
They said they don’t recall any problems last year as they traveled from school to school with their daughter who then played volleyball.
"I’ve never seen it until this year," said Darin.
They said they hope that by taking a stand at the athletic level, it will send a message to students on the importance of treating each other well at the school level too.
"We are hoping the spirit of sportsmanship to increase awareness," said Hakonson.