A group of Wakefield High School football players and their parents are contesting game suspensions and calling for accountability among athletic officials in response to reports of racism on the field.
The athletes say they endured being called “boy” and the N-word, and one student was spat on, during a football game on March 5 at Marshall High School.
On Thursday, Arlington Public Schools issued statements confirming the reports of racial slurs being used. Fairfax County Public Schools said it conducted an investigation and is working on a plan for restorative justice, but these reports are being contested by members of the Marshall community.
Senior Lukai Hatcher, one of the students who posted a widely-shared account of what happened on social media, tells ARLnow the taunting — which built on similar name-calling during basketball season — started early in the game.
“We complained to the ref, who did nothing, and the coaches, who couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Of course, if you leave something untreated, it’s going to grow.”
At the end of the game, Hatcher said a Marshall player spit at him, and he lunged for the player. This launched a brawl between the two teams and resulted in three Wakefield students and one Marshall student receiving three-game suspensions.
“We only got a reaction out of the refs when we did something to protect ourselves,” he said.
His mother, Lydia Hatcher, said that following the game she was in contact with the football coach, the school athletic director and the principal. She told them and Virginia High School League that she disagreed with the suspension on the grounds that her son was defending himself.
“My kids are used to being bumped a little harder, but they’re not used to being called the N-word,” Hatcher said. “If I had been close enough, I would’ve taken my son off the field.”
I go to Wakefield high . We went to Marshall I school . Yes we were mad because we were losing but we wanted the game to end and go home. A white player from Marshall spits on a black male from my team results in a fight that could have been prevented. Share this video. pic.twitter.com/Pt3lHibygP
— Javell Edge (@JavellEdge) March 18, 2021
Both schools worked together to reduce the suspensions for students, said Mike McCall, the director of communications for VHSL.
“As soon as VHSL staff was made aware of incidents surrounding this game, the video of the game was reviewed,” he said. “Additionally, all those within the authority level of the VHSL were involved in conversations surrounding the concerns associated with the game. The schools worked collaboratively together with the VHSL during the entire process.”
Arlington Public Schools confirmed it has been in contact with multiple officials since the game.
“From the beginning, APS and Wakefield officials have been in contact with Marshall High School, VHSL leadership, staff at the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association, and Fairfax County Public Schools about what transpired and the lack of action by the officials after repeated attempts by players and coaches to alert them to the behavior,” the school system said in a statement. “Staff was working behind the scenes to get the Wakefield suspension overturned.”
For Lydia Hatcher, however, the decision was inequitable.
“Had Lukai, as a black young male, spit on someone who was not a person of color, there would have been charges pressed,” she said. “A little slap on the wrist for one game is not acceptable punishment.”
The parents have launched a petition that currently has nearly 5,000 signatures, demanding an apology from Marshall and from VHSL, asking for the suspension on the Wakefield players to be reversed, and mandatory diversity and inclusion training for local athletes, coaches and officials.
Late Friday afternoon, the Arlington branch of the NAACP issued a statement in support of the “#PlayFairNow” petition, decrying “a culture of hate towards black students at Arlington Public Schools with no accountability for bad actors.”
“We’re trying to fight the pandemic, work careers, help kids with schooling, and we have to fight racism,” said Monique Brown-Bryant, whose son Kevin Robinson was on the field that night. “It’s a separate pandemic.”
Now is the time to demand change, Lydia Hatcher said.
“I think it’s been tolerated over the course of years because nobody wanted to deal with it or take on what has to be taken on to change this,” she said.
The mothers pointed to comments on social media from students who said they are from Marshall who also claimed to have experienced instances of racism and homophobia.
They shared their frustrations that a statement from administrators did not come out until two weeks after the incident. Arlington administrators said the radio silence was to protect the privacy of the students involved.
“Due to the number of students involved and the nature of the incident, the three Wakefield students would have very easily been identified,” APS said. “Legally, the Principal cannot release information that could identify a student or students. Dr. Chris Willmore wanted to give students the time to process and to act at their own pace. His responsibility is to look out for the well-being of the students involved.”
APS’s Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer, along with the supervisor of health, physical education and athletics, held a number of meetings with the Wakefield football program in the wake of the incident, APS said.
The group Black Parents of Arlington, meanwhile, condemned the reports of racism as well as the way in which the information came out: from students on social media, not from the school system.
“Why was the burden of advocacy placed on children instead of the administration that claims to protect them?” Whytni H. Kernodle and Adora Williams said in a joint statement. “It is unacceptable that the community found out about this nearly two weeks after the incident, and only because of the bravery of Black children willing to raise their voices.”
But Marshall High School community members and Varsity Head Coach Jason Strickland contest everything about the version of events coming from Arlington.
In an email to the Marshall community, Strickland said he and his staff do not promote unsportsmanlike conduct or acts of racism or bigotry and “we never want to offend any individual or group in any way.”
“The incident that occurred on March 5th was between two competitive players from Marshall and Wakefield that unfortunately got out of hand that included both teams. From our perspective, the officials allowed this situation to grow throughout the game where it came to a head at the end of the game,” he wrote. “But at no point did we see or hear any of the accusations that are being said about our players, coaches, or parents.”
Contrary to the pattern of racist taunts that the Wakefield community alleges, Strickland said this is the first time that he has experienced something like this in his three years at Marshall.
“I believe our players, coaches, and parents because I did not witness nor have I been shown actual proof of these accusations occurring,” he said. “No one is perfect, but I just do not believe these accusations.”
Parents of Marshall students counter that it was Wakefield players and coaches who used racial slurs — including the N-word — and made derogatory comments at the Marshall players.
“There is NO culture of racism and bigotry at Marshall High School on the football team,” a statement on behalf of Marshall parents said. “The head coach, Jason Strickland, and many assistant coaches are African American, the only white coach is a female. The players of color on Marshall have refuted the claims of the Wakefield players. The Marshall coaches have stated no racism issues have ever come up with this team. Coach Strickland is highly respected, as are his coaches.”
Marshall students had to wear masks under their helmets for health reasons, the parents said, making it nearly impossible for a student to spit on another student.
“The players deserve the suspension for fighting,” the statement continued. “Reversing this would be a mistake. It is clear they were involved in the fighting and clear the Wakefield player started the physical altercation.”