Several Northern Virginia high school debate teams said they will boycott the state championships at Liberty University, whose president, Jerry Falwell Jr., made a speech in December that many saw as threatening to Muslims.
Debate coaches and students have been lobbying the Virginia High School League, the nonprofit group that oversees state interscholastic sports and academic competitions, to move the state championship to another location. Liberty University is a private, evangelical mega-university 180 miles south of Washington.
The calls to move the tournament, which is scheduled to kick off next week, came after Falwell said at the university’s convocation in December that students should arm themselves to “end those Muslims.” Falwell later clarified his remarks to say he was referring only to the Islamic terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., not all Muslims.
In the wake of the backlash over his remarks, some debate coaches wrote to VHSL about their concerns and started a Facebook group urging the organization to move the tournament. Others gathered their teams, many of which have Muslim students on their rosters, and allowed students to decide what would happen.
Students from at least five Northern Virginia high schools have decided to boycott the championship, forgoing participation in the state’s premier debate tournament. Coaches said Muslim students expressed deep concerns about their comfort and safety at the university campus in Lynchburg, Va. And students — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — wanted to take a stand against what they regard as anti-Islam rhetoric.
Some teams backed out of all VHSL debate events and others decided to forgo just the state championship. WUSA (Channel 9) reported Thursday that several high schools were boycotting the tournament.
Ken Tilley, the VHSL’s executive director, said Friday that league officials are reevaluating whether there will be future events at Liberty University. But, he said, the tournament cannot be moved.
“We had a commitment to the university this year,” Tilley said. “We’re honoring that commitment and then we’ll decide going forward where future events might be held.”
He also said that he believes that the league had addressed the concerns of students who were worried about their safety.
“We feel that we have protocol in place to deal with the concerns the students had,” Tilley said. “If they decide they don’t want to participate under the conditions that have been established and the protocols that are in place for this event or any event, that’s their prerogative.”
Jim Dunning, the debate coach at Broad Run High in Loudoun County, said students voted unanimously to skip the event on principle and because of safety concerns for their Muslim teammates. The captain of the Broad Run team, which has won several state titles in the past dozen years, is Muslim and wears a headscarf.
“It wasn’t appropriate to send anyone there given the rhetoric and the weapons,” said Dunning, who also is a special-education assistant at Broad Run.
A pair of students at McLean High in Fairfax County also decided to boycott the event. Fatima Shahbaz, 16, is Muslim, and her parents are concerned about her safety. But Shahbaz said she decided to forgo the opportunity because she wanted to take a stand against Falwell’s remarks, which she saw as an effort to intimidate minority voices. That, she said, runs counter to the spirit of debate.
“The fact that there is a threat of violence, it stifles discourse,” Shahbaz said.
Nonetheless, she and her debate partner, Jessica Boyer, said they were experiencing a little fear of missing out. The team was the conference champion, is undefeated this season and has strong prospects at the state championship. And students reminded them that a state debate title could bring pride to McLean High and bolster a college application.
“We ultimately decided that there was nothing we could possibly value over standing for what we thought was right,” said Boyer, 17.
Two students from Dominion High School in Loudoun County also chose to boycott the championship, but the rest of the team will attend the tournament. The debate teams from Hayfield Secondary and Lake Braddock Secondary in Fairfax County decided to skip the championship, as well.
Duane Hyland, the coach at Lake Braddock, said all but three students voted to boycott the state tournament, something that was not an easy choice.
“You want to earn trophies. You want to debate. You want to do the things you’ve been preparing to do all year,” Hyland said. “The kids rationalized that there are some things more important than trophies.”