Teens are subject to so many rules that are a catch 22. They are visible and face serious adult consequences when they act out, but they’re still treated like children in so many circumstances. When they speak up for themselves, they can suffer backlash, criticism, silence, and even worse, denial of their experiences. They’re treated as a separate class of people – not believed and protected like children, and not respected and heard like adults. Teens often are met with contempt and their complaints can be brushed aside without any redress. Because they are ‘minors,’ their experiences aren’t even validated by being shared and discussed freely. The confidentiality that protects children, puts many teens’ experiences ‘out of sight’ of the adults around them, making them even easier to ignore.
So, what can teens, their families, and their communities do when they’re confronted with injustice?
I am proud to report here that at the school where I work, I’ve witnessed an excellent response to injustice suffered by teens, and this story offers some important lessons.
On March 5, Wakefield High School football team from Arlington, Virginia played a game against Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia. The two schools are nine miles apart in Virginia and have played each other in football and many other sports over the years. This Friday night game was different and not just because it was played in the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because racist name calling and spitting marred the game and ultimately caused a confrontation that would make headlines.
After the game, there was an “altercation,” and three Wakefield players were given three game suspensions for fighting. The full story emerged on Wakefield player Lukai Hatcher’s Instagram account on March 17:
“Many of you have followed my football journey throughout my high school career. I am posting this on social media to bring attention to an incident that happened during my game on March 5th at Marshall High School in Fairfax County, VA. Me and my teammates were called racial slurs, taunted, and even spit on by Marshall players. We also experienced unfair treatment by each of the refs and were harassed from the sidelines by coaches and Marshall parents. We as a team complained to the refs all game about the way that we were being treated yet the flags were consistently thrown on us and even our coaches. The officiating that night was unfair. This build up of events during the game led to one of Marshall’s player’s spitting on one of our players. This caused an altercation between both teams and as a result, 3 of our players were given a 3 game suspension. We only have 3 games left. The 3 game suspension was appealed and is now down to 1. Marshall High School’s athletic teams have been known to demonstrate a culture of racism and unsportsmanlike behavior. We have experienced foul play on the basketball court as well. This isn’t new and enough is enough! We should not be punished for defending ourselves and each other especially because during the ENTIRE game the refs, who’s job it is to ensure each game is fair and who were supposed to protect and defend us, did not.
We are shining the light on the continuing culture of tolerance for unjust and discriminatory practices in sports for minority athletes and seeking accountability in support of change.
Because the football team members are all high school students, the school was not able to openly discuss what had happened on the field with the school community or anyone else – until Lukai courageously made the racist incidents public.
Since then, the Wakefield school community has come together behind our players and supported them. There have been statements condemning the lack of action by the officials at the game, and the racist acts themselves. The Principal at Wakefield, Dr. Christian Willmore sent a letter out to the Wakefield community including this:
“One student asked what they should do if this happened again,” wrote Dr. Christian Willmore. “I responded to the student that, first, I was extremely proud of the restraint they had shown for 2 1/2 hours and that they handled it exactly as they should have: they reported it to the referees and then with their coaches. In this case, the adults who were responsible failed them. I also informed them that in the future, all coaches have been instructed to leave the field/court immediately if our student-athletes are subject to racist, bigoted behaviors. Our student-athletes will not be put into a position like this again.”
News of the racist acts has been featured on the local news. An online petition has gathered over 13,500 signatures and asks for the following:
We would like to see the following happen:
1. An immediate apology from Marshall and their football program
2. An apology from the VHSL (The Virginia High School League) for not ensuring fair play
3. A reversal of the suspension for the attacked players
4. Mandatory diversity and inclusion training for local athletes, coaches and officials.
There has been a car parade for the community to drive past the current team while they stood side by side at the school. Two of the students who were attacked were guest co-anchors on the Wakefield Action Media News program and addressed the attack head on. They also offered advice for what students should do if they are ever in a similar situation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fboEdc-NJqc
There are some important lessons for RevolTeens from this racist attack and the response. First, what happens to you at school or a school event when you are under eighteen years old will be confidential to protect you. In this case, the Wakefield school community and the larger community were not told what happened and which students it happened to until those students posted their own stories on social media. In this case, that worked out well for the teens involved. They told their stories themselves and didn’t have to rely on others to speak for them. However, other teens with a less supportive community or students who are not believed could suffer attacks again on their credibility, etc. and the result would be additional trauma. The hard rule about confidentiality of minors is a problem because while it protects individual students’ identities, it keeps other individuals and the community in ignorance of attacks, problems, and other issues that may affect them. As DCist reported ‘Whytni Kernodle, president of the group Black Parents of Arlington, says Arlington Public Schools officials should not have waited until the incident blew up on social media to address it.
“When things like this happen, people need to know about it,” Kernodle says. “These are the things that my son and his friends have been talking about for almost two weeks. That’s completely and utterly inappropriate, and a failure on the part of the administration and the principal.”’
Until the confidentiality laws regarding teens are changed, these attacks and similar events will not and can not be shared with the community and so those teens who need help will be left alone to deal with the aftermath in silence and potentially shame.
Next, a strong community will stand up for teens who are facing injustice. Wakefield is located in South Arlington which is culturally, racially, and economically diverse. The school is proud of its diversity and works to value many voices. Though our community has been literally distanced for over a year now due to the pandemic, we have come together to support our football players and to stand against racism. If we were not a strong community dedicated to supporting each other, there may not have been such a unified and unequivocal response. Working to build strong communities can buoy teens who are fighting for change.
Finally, when teens do go public with what they’ve experienced, adults don’t always accept their report of events. A group from the opposing team’s school calling themselves “Concerned Parents of Marshall High School Varsity Football Players” has issued a statement denying that any racist attacks ever happened at all as our local ABC station reported
“None of us denies that racism exists in our society — and none of us condones bigoted or hateful words or actions. But what we can say for sure is that there is no culture of racism in our football program. There is no evidence of racial slurs and spitting by the Marshall players or harassment by our coaches, volunteers and spectators on March 5. The irresponsible perpetuation of these false allegations is causing real damage,” said the statement.
So, RevolTeens and the adults who love, care for, and respect them must continue to fight against injustice and discrimination just like Lukai Hatcher and his Wakefield High School teammates have. The choice to make his experience public through social media was one that has had consequences that have mostly been good and has drawn attention to a longstanding problem in our community. My hope is that our school will remain strong when our students are marginalized, attacked, shamed, or even just ignored. Every time a RevolTeen successfully calls out unfairness and injustice and finds support from caring adults, the world gets a little bit better, and the next teen who is hurt will feel just a little more confident about coming forward.