The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ in Mall incident

Flags fly over the Covington Catholic High School stadium in Park Hills, Ky., outside Cincinnati. Students from the school attended the March for Life in Washington last month. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

A report released Wednesday about an encounter between Kentucky high school students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial found “no evidence” that the students made “offensive or racist statements,” either in response to the Black Hebrew Israelites who shouted slurs at them or to a drum-beating Native American.

The Jan. 18 incident drew national attention after a participant posted a short video clip of the Native American, Nathan Phillips, in what initially appeared to be a standoff with one of the students, Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. The clip drew immediate and widespread condemnation online, with many commenters accusing Sandmann and other students from the private school, Covington Catholic near Cincinnati, of mocking and intimidating Phillips.

Officials at the high school and the Diocese of Covington initially were among those who condemned the boys’ actions. However, after a fuller picture of the encounter emerged in other video clips, including a clip in which Sandmann appears to try to calm a fellow student, the diocese commissioned an independent firm to interview the students and their chaperones, locate third-party witnesses, review social media posts and news articles, find any additional video of the standoff and determine exactly what happened.

The firm, Greater Cincinnati Investigation Inc., said four licensed investigators spent approximately 240 hours interviewing witnesses and reviewing about 50 hours of Internet activity, including posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and video from major networks.

On Wednesday, the diocese released the resulting four-page report. In it, investigators concluded that neither Sandmann nor other Covington students had behaved in an offensive manner that day.

“We found no evidence that the students performed a ‘Build the wall’ chant,” the report said, nor that the students made “offensive or racist comments . . . to Phillips or members of his group.”

The report concludes that some students did perform a “tomahawk chop to the beat of Mr. Phillips’ drumming” — an arm motion mimicking the swinging of a tomahawk that many Native Americans find offensive — “and some joined Mr. Phillips’ chant.” But the report makes no further comment on that behavior.

It concludes that the students felt “confused” but not “threatened” when Phillips, who was on the Mall to take part in the Indigenous Peoples March, approached them but says little more about the standoff between Sandmann and Phillips that sparked the controversy. “An interaction between Mr. Sandmann and Mr. Phillips ended,” the report said. “Chaperones moved students to the buses shortly thereafter.”

The report also says that one of the chaperones told students that if “they engaged in a verbal exchange with the Black Hebrew Israelites, they would receive detention.”

Roger J. Foys, the bishop of Covington, welcomed the report. In a statement on the diocese website, Foys wrote that he was pleased “that my hope and expectation” that the inquiry “would ‘exonerate our students so that they can move forward with their lives’ has been realized.”

“Our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” Foys said. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”

Advocates for Native Americans blasted the report, saying it dismissed behavior that was clearly inappropriate.

“Maybe they didn’t say overtly racist things, but the context of the incident needs to be analyzed,” said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a descendant of Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington and professor of American Indian studies at California State University at San Marcos, who called the report “unfortunate and disgusting.”

It “sidesteps problematic issues — such as the fact they were all wearing MAGA gear, which is, unfortunately, a visual cue,” Gilio-Whitaker said. “We have a history of people in MAGA gear attacking other people.”

The report did include a section about the hats, saying that most of the boys bought the headgear in Washington, where they had traveled to participate in the annual March for Life, an antiabortion demonstration. The report notes that, in previous years, some students bought “Hope” hats in support of then-President Barack Obama — and that such behavior violates no rules.

“We found no evidence of a school policy prohibiting political apparel on school-sponsored trips,” the report said.

Guy Jones, a Hunkpapa Lakota and member of the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition, said the report misses the larger point on that score.

“The fact that you have these students wearing these MAGA hats and they were doing the tomahawk chop, that was a statement,” Jones said. “This was a great learning opportunity — a teachable moment — and we are too busy pointing fingers.”

Sandmann’s attorney, Lin Wood, questioned the notion that wearing a MAGA cap amounts to a provocation.

“The MAGA cap that Nick was wearing provides no legal excuse or justification for the politically motivated accusers, rather it only confirms their bias and malice. Anyone who falsely attacked, disparaged, or threatened a minor because of the cap he was wearing should hang his or her head in shame and be held fully accountable in a court of law.”

The report concluded that Phillips’s public comments about the incident “contain some inconsistencies” that could not be resolved because the investigators could not contact him. On Wednesday, Phillips could not be reached for comment. Phillips had said in public comments that he heard students chanting “build that wall.”

Investigators said they did not interview Phillips or Sandmann in person for their report. Instead, they reviewed a written account of the incident Sandmann provided shortly after returning to Covington, which they found to “accurately reflect the facts.”

The diocese did not respond to further questions, including how the investigative team was chosen or how much it was paid.

Wood said in an email that he was pleased with the report, which “merely confirmed the truth of Nick’s statements about what occurred.”

“Videos available online . . . show without dispute that Nick did nothing wrong and did not instigate the incident with Nathan Phillips,” Wood wrote.

“Nick did not approach Nathan Phillips — he was confronted by Phillips who picked Nick as his target. Nick did not block Phillips’ path — Phillips made no attempt to get around or avoid Nick. Nick did not verbally assault, taunt, mock, harass, disparage or threaten Phillips in any way — Nick remained calm and well-mannered despite Phillips’ loud chants and drumbeating inches from his face. Nick did not utter one word.

“Nick’s only act was to quietly urge a classmate to refrain from any comments that might aggravate the situation created by Phillips and the Black Hebrew Israelites,” Wood wrote. The report, he added, “firmly establish[es] the truth that Nick was innocent of any wrongdoing. Nick was the victim of adults who used him to further their own agendas.”

The report makes no recommendations for the future, such as banning political attire on school trips or encouraging chaperones to intervene when dust-ups occur.

Williams reported from Cincinnati. Joe Heim and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.