Montpelier football prank under microscope
EAST MONTPELIER – A Montpelier High School football players' prank meant to intimidate one of U-32 High School's best players has instead sparked a discussion about racism.
Three Montpelier High School students placed a cross bearing the name of a black U-32 football player on U-32's football field the night before the homecoming game earlier this fall.
The students say they did not intend the action to have any racist overtones, students and administrators recognized the racial associations with the action and are addressing the issue.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was crazy," said Dwight Lipsey, the U-32 star running back whose name was written on the cross. "When I thought about it, I thought maybe they didn't mean it in a racial way, but I wasn't with them when they did it, so I don't know."
The discussions over the issue and the rivalry between the schools continued Friday as the two teams prepared to meet again for their final game of the season last night.
Montpelier football players had a team dinner the night before the big homecoming game on Oct. 1, at a player's house, according to Montpelier High School Principal Peter Evans. After a while, most of the players headed home, but three remained, and began talking about the tradition of pulling a prank on U-32, Montpelier's longtime rival.
Parents were present at the discussion, according to Evans.
One student suggested making a tombstone bearing the words "RIP" or "RIP U-32." The kids began scouring the house for materials to make the tombstone. The mother of the student who hosted the party said the only thing close to the tombstone were some old Halloween decorations including some graveyard-style crosses.
The students chose a cross and were ready to write "RIP U-32" when one of them suggested making a cross for one of the U-32 players instead. Evans declined to name the students.
After an online search of newspaper archives, the students determined that student Dwight Lipsey, a starting tailback, appeared the most in news articles, and would be the target. The mother of the host student said she didn't think it was a good idea to target one player, but the students pushed on because Lipsey was a star.
The students wrote "RIP Dwight" on the cross, went to U-32, stuck it in the football field and went home, Evans said.
Meanwhile, U-32 students were up to a prank of their own, he said. Players hung a banner on the school's front doors stating Montpelier wouldn't score in the game, and spray-painted school property.
The next day, game day, a custodian at U-32 discovered the cross, removed it, and threw it away. Evans heard about the incident from a colleague and called in one of the students involved. That student named the other two, and Evans also brought them in to talk about what happened. They told Evans that they were just getting ready to play the big game and wanted to "psyche" Lipsey out.
Evans asked the students to "think about how this would appear. The kid whose name you selected is an African-American kid." The students said their prank wasn't racially driven.
One of the Montpelier students responsible for placing the cross on the field is black also, Evans said.
"I know in talking to him he suddenly sort of realized what this appeared to be. He and the other kids all of a sudden realized," that the action could be interpreted as a racial incident, Evans said.
Evans said he called U-32 Athletic Director Amy Molina, who hadn't heard about the incident. She couldn't discuss the issue because she was busy, and the game went on as scheduled that night. It wasn't until Monday that Evans could discuss the incident with U-32 Principal Dot Blake.
Blake had serious concerns, Evans said, and she also reported that Montpelier players were using racial and other inappropriate slurs during the game. Evans called game officials to inquire about that, and the official he spoke with said he had not heard any inappropriate comments. Evans checked with the Vermont Principal's Association, which is the governing body for high school athletics, to see if any officials had lodged complaints about slurs, but they hadn't.
Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said the symbolism of the cross is one to be taken seriously.
"A cross with an African-American name and RIP certainly brings back or conjures up visions of the Ku Klux Klan, Night Riders, burning of crosses and 3,000 lynchings, which is unfortunately the history of our country. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan had a substantial presence in Vermont in the 1920s. The symbolism of cross-burning was used essentially to keep certain people in their place. It's a symbol of terror, intimidation, and rationally instills fear in many people. Obviously it's a very poor choice of imagery," Appel said.
Lipsey, who is playing his first year of football, said he thinks the rivalry has been carried too far.
"Football doesn't need to go that far," Lipsey said Friday as he prepared to play in the game against Montpelier. He said he thought it would be appropriate if the players involved had to miss a game, but not to be kicked off the team.
"Especially the seniors," he said. "I don't want to take their career away. But they shouldn't play around like that."
Lipsey said his parents were very upset about the cross. "The school thought it was pretty serious too."
Going into the game Friday, coach Mike Law told the U-32 team to "keep our mouths shut and if we hit the ground to get back up quick," Lipsey said.
Matt Ayer, a senior on the Montpelier team, said the squad is sorry for the incident.
"We've done our best to make amends with them and tried to let U-32 and the rest of the coaching staff and the school in general know that this wasn't meant to be a malicious act. It wasn't meant to involve race …" and the team is sorry that it has, he said. Ayer said he was not directly involved in putting the cross on the field.
Ayer said the team has been "talking through the situation with each other and learning about how we can grow from this issue. None of us have anything against him (Lipsey)."
"I hope that U-32 recognizes our apologies," Ayer added. "I hope that this can be resolved in the end. And Dwight has no hard feelings and (U-32 Coach) Mike Law has no hard feelings. (We hope) the school rivalry can be one of fun and not one with tension."
The three Montpelier students involved wrote a letter of apology to the U-32 team, including Lipsey. Other Montpelier players thought that they hadn't gone far enough, and the four captains plus two players and administrators met with U-32 team members.
"They were humbled by the experience," Evans said of his players.
He said he spoke with parents of the students directly involved, and not all team members' parents, because he judged that it was a personal issue, not a team matter. But the issue of rivalry is a larger issued he said he wants to address.
Evans said he is hoping to bring the issue to the Capital Community Justice Center of Montpelier. He said the rivalry between the schools is being taken too seriously.
"It's not a healthy rivalry," Evans said.
"We're past it, and we really want to be past it, for the sake of the kids who were involved," Molina said.
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