Civil rights training ordered after “racial slur” investigation

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2019 10:00:17 PM

ATHOL — An investigation into an alleged racial slur used against the opposing team during an Athol-Royalston Middle School girls’ basketball game last month found no individual student at fault, but the school will still host a civil rights and racial sensitivity training in response.

“Evidence supports that racial statements were made from members of the Athol-Royalston Middle School basketball team towards members of the SABIS International Charter School basketball team,” Superintendent Darcy Fernandes wrote in an email. “There was no specific determination made against any one student that was corroborated.”

However, some parents of the ARMS basketball team dispute these findings and are requesting evidence from the investigation. They feel their daughters were wrongly accused of using the derogatory language and plan to challenge the school’s decision.

“Our children live here, this is their community, their reputation, and they deserve a leader who will remain impartial without prejudice,” said Tammy Duquette, a mother of two ARMS basketball players. “We feel that Ms. Fernandes’ inability to remain impartial during this situation is disheartening.”

During the second game of the Athol-Royalston Middle School (ARMS) girls’ basketball season on Friday Dec. 14, racist comments directed towards players of the SABIS team were allegedly made by a member, or members, of the Athol team. After a coach from the Sabis International team reported the alleged incident the district’s civil rights investigators started an investigation.

“Racial statements are never acceptable or tolerated by the school district,” said Fernandes.

“As the district’s civil rights coordinator it is her responsibility to remain impartial until the conclusion of the investigation,” Duquette said. “A responsibility we feel she failed to uphold.”

Ms. Fernandes stated she did not do the investigation and is not the Civil Rights officer for the district. “Two of our administrators in the district are the civil rights officers,” she said, “At no point did I investigate this matter or draw the conclusion on the next steps. The civil rights officers did the investigation, the results were given to the principal who then put forth the findings and next steps.”

Parents and family of some of the basketball players are upset by what appeared to be an assumption of guilt by the superintendent against their daughters. They say members of the SABIS team were shouting distracting words and behaving aggressively towards the Athol team throughout the Dec. 14 game. Afterward some members of the Sabis team refused to shake hands with the Athol girls, said Claire Barber, grandmother to an ARMS girls’ basketball team player.

“We are not talking about disrespectful kids here,” Barber said in an email. “They are caring, polite, and respectful young ladies who enjoy the game of basketball and that has been taken away from them. Once the accusation is out there you can’t put it back in the box.”

At practice on Monday following the game, superintendent Fernandes reprimanded members of the team, warning them of the gravity of the situation and urging anyone who knew about the alleged incident to speak up. The team was told that a video of the alleged incident existed, but no such video was discovered during the investigation, according to Fernandes.

After the district’s civil rights investigators interviewed members of the team on Dec. 18, middle school principal Thomas Telicki sent a letter to parents of the girls interviewed. He informed them of the ongoing investigation and the complaint brought against the team by the Sabis School. Referees present at the game were interviewed as part of the investigation too, Fernandes said.

On Dec. 19, several angry parents attended the Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee meeting demanding an apology from Fernandes for the way she confronted the team. Duquette spoke on behalf of at least seven other parents during the public comment period. She said the school needed her permission before civil rights investigators could talk to her daughters. However, Telicki disputed this claim in his Jan. 4 letter.

“With regard to the process of the investigation, it is my understanding that schools have the ability to question students without their parents present and prior to informing the parent when conducting an investigation in order to maintain a safe school environment,” Telicki wrote.

On Jan. 10, a letter signed by a group of around 20 parents and guardians of the ARMS girls’ basketball team requesting an appeal the “inconclusive” decision was delivered to the Athol superintendent’s office. They requested a copy of the Sabis team’s complaint, a complete unredacted copy of the civil rights investigators’ findings, all evidence proving that racist statements were made by members of the ARMS team, and a copy of the civil rights sensitivity training plan.

“We, the parents and guardians, feel that the determination of “inconclusive” is vague and offers no details about the supporting evidence for the outcome,” read the letter.

At Telicki’s request, some students will now participate in a civil rights and racial sensitivity training in response to the incident. Exactly who participates in the training and what it will entail has yet to be determined.

“We agree that regardless of the findings that this is a teachable moment to help our children further understand the continued struggles of racial harassment that still exists,” Duquette said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.


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