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A high school football team told adults they were spat on and called the n-word. Nothing changed until a player posted, ‘enough is enough!’

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It started with students speaking up.

In recent days, parents, educators and other adults in Northern Virginia have publicly stood up and stood by football players from an Arlington high school who say they were called slurs, including the n-word and “boy,” and spat on by members of an opposing team.

But before that grown-up outrage showed itself online, and led to calls for action, a teenager declared through a social media post “enough is enough!”

“Many of you have followed my football journey throughout my high school career,” reads an online post from Wakefield High School student Lukai Hatcher. It is dated March 17 and in it, the teenager describes what led to an on-field fight on March 5 that resulted in players from his team and from Fairfax County’s Marshall High School facing game suspensions.

“Me and my teammates were called racial slurs, taunted, and even spit on by Marshall players,” he writes. “We also experienced unfair treatment by each of the refs and were harassed from the sidelines by coaches and Marshall parents.”

He describes the team as complaining in vain to the referees throughout the game and having previously seen that type of behavior from the school’s athletic teams: “This isn’t new and enough is enough! We should not be punished for defending ourselves and each other especially because during the ENTIRE game the refs, who’s (sic) job it is to ensure each game is fair and who were supposed to defend us, did not!”

The post is followed by two hashtags: #Biggerthanthegame and #changingtheculture.

What happened on that field, and what has occurred since, is “bigger than the game.” It is bigger than two schools. It is bigger than Northern Virginia.

We teach children to tell adults when others hurt them and in doing so, assure them that we will take care of them and the situation. But when it comes to racism, we too often leave them on their own to deal with it. We too often fail them.

When students of color started creating pages on Instagram last summer to share what it felt like to be “black at” different private schools across the nation, their posts didn’t describe hateful comments and actions as happening in whispers and nooks, hidden from adults. Many told of young people reporting racist incidents to teachers and administrators and then seeing nothing happen.

Now that private schools know what it’s like ‘being black’ on their campuses, will they do what they ask of their students — learn and do better?

Similar pages have since sprouted for public school systems, including one that encourages former and current students of Fairfax schools to share their experiences. A post on that page reads, “At Marshall high school, I hear slurs being thrown around in the classrooms so casually that even the teachers don’t bat an eye. Once this nonblack dude said the n word and I went and complained to my teacher and she told me she will speak with him, but I never saw this happen and he continued to use that word.”

The reason I know about that page and that post is because a Marshall student shared it on social media in response to Hatcher’s statement. That student also wrote “peers at marshall — i am begging you to speak up and hold our admin and peers accountable.”

The time for quietly handling incidents of hate within schools is over. Students are making that clear.

Monique Brown-Bryant, who is African American and facilitates conversations about diversity in Arlington schools for the organization Challenging Racism, is the mother of a Wakefield football player.

She says that Hatcher and other players who spoke publicly about what happened didn’t do so without considering how it could affect their college prospects and other aspects of their lives. They figured they would likely draw online attacks — and they did. But, she says, the students and their parents had expressed concerns to administrators and the players waited nearly two weeks for an adequate response. That didn’t come, she says.

“They dropped the ball and they dropped it in a terrible way,” Brown-Bryant says. A video of the moments before the fight shows a player pulling his head back in a motion someone would make before spitting. Brown-Bryant says that wasn’t the only time in the game that Wakefield players were spat on — an act that is vile during normal times and potentially deadly during a pandemic.

And yet, she says, players involved in the fight from both teams received the same penalty: a three-game suspension that was later reduced to one.

A Change.org petition that Brown-Bryant put together on Thursday calls for a complete reversal of the suspension for the attacked players, an apology from Marshall and their football program, an apology from the Virginia High School League (VHSL) and mandatory diversity and inclusion training for local athletes, coaches and officials.

As of Saturday afternoon, more than 6,000 people had signed the petition.

On Friday, Fairfax County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools issued a joint statement saying both “strongly condemn hate speech and racial intolerance of any kind.”

“We are committed to growing from this situation and will strive to promote sportsmanship, respect, and fair play on and off the field,” the statement reads. “We will be working together to repair the harm done, to support our students and families and ensure we are fostering an environment both on and off the field where this kind of incident cannot happen again.”

The statement calls on the VHSL to join them in urging for mandatory diversity and inclusion training and expresses a commitment by the school systems to provide training and education for athletes, coaches and staff.

Wakefield Principal Chris Willmore also sent a letter to the school’s community expressing outrage “by the blatant acts of racism our players were subjected to during the game and that the officials did nothing to intervene despite our urging and even after our coaches signaled them to the behavior multiple times during the contest, allowing the situation to escalate.”

In the letter, he describes meeting with the coaches and players to allow the students to share how they were feeling and ask questions.

“One student asked what they should do if this happened again,” reads the letter. “I responded to the student that, first, I was extremely proud of the restraint they had shown for 2½ hours and that they handled it exactly as they should have: they reported it to the referees and then with their coaches. In this case, the adults who were responsible failed them. I also informed them that in the future, all coaches have been instructed to leave the field/court immediately if our student-athletes are subject to racist, bigoted behaviors. Our student-athletes will not be put into a position like this again.”

A spokeswoman for the Fairfax school district shared a statement Marshall interim principal Augie Frattali sent to the school’s community. In it, he writes that he has “worked collaboratively with the Wakefield HS principal to ensure that there will be an opportunity for the students to join together to discuss their actions and develop a plan moving forward.”

There is no way to know if any of those statements would have been made if students hadn’t spoken up first.

What is certain: Students shouldn’t have to speak through social media to be heard.

In the days since players shared their experiences online, they have received many public messages of support. They have also received private ones. Brown-Bryant shared a screenshot with me of one from a Marshall student.

“I just wanted to say I’m so sorry that you and your teammates got mistreated by Marshall’s football team,” it reads. “Racism has been a huge issue at my school and it hasn’t gotten any better so thank you for speaking up because even when we speak up ourselves we get ignored.”

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