Members of the Lamoille Union High School girls’ soccer team are leading the charge against harassment after experiencing it firsthand during a Division 2 playoff game last November.
A letter penned by soccer captain and Lamoille junior Barrett Freeman and signed by 111 other student athletes from across Vermont calling for more stringent guidelines regarding fan behavior was sent to the Vermont Principals’ Association, which governs high school athletics, and the Legislature.
Rep. Kate Donnally, a Democrat who represents Belvidere, Johnson, Hyde Park and Wolcott, received the letter and arranged for their testimony in the Senate Committee on Education Tuesday.
The letter was written following an incident in an opening round playoff game against Missisquoi Valley Union High School when fans subjected the Lamoille girls to “repeated harassment, sexualization and debasement,” according to Lamoille Union officials.
A quick investigation into the incident led by Missisquoi Valley found no evidence of such intense and escalating harassment, though the school did apologize on behalf of the behavior of some of its players.
The absence of accountability further frustrated the players, they said.
Lamoille Union wasn’t the only high school targeted by an opposing team’s fans in the 2021 soccer season. Players on the boys’ soccer team at Winooski High School accused fans from Enosburg Falls High School of hurling racist epithets.
An investigation conducted by the offending school also turned up no wrongdoing.
“As student athletes, we believe that the responses of schools and those who make decisions to address these incidents have not done enough to make our games safer for future athletes,” Barrett wrote in her letter. “We would like to see changes made in how the fans are addressed and how investigations are handled in these situations. A simple ‘knock it off’ does not cut it anymore. We strongly believe there should be universal steps and rules put in place for all school-sponsored youth sporting events so that officials and administrators know what to do and how to respond before anything is even said.”
The letter laid out the new guidance Barrett would like to see enacted be the principals’ association or other regulatory groups, including universal protocol for addressing in-game behavior issued to all schools that would identify and remove offending individuals, a neutral third-party investigation if language targeting gender or race is involved and escalating levels of discipline for offending fans.
Donnally acknowledged ahead of testimony from Barrett and others Tuesday that the legislative session was winding down and there was no relevant bill to consider but touched on the idea of a third-party investigation mechanism that might be legislated into existence to address the frustration caused by schools accused of offensive fan behavior conducting their own investigations.
Ada Moore, a teammate of Barrett’s, also spoke to the committee, and reiterated the traumatic experience of attempting to stay focused and play through Missisquoi fans’ demeaning comments.
“Emotional reactions from fans at sporting events is not something that’s out of the ordinary, but this specific time was more than that. Players bodies were commented on. We were teased and distracted. This cast a dark cloud on a day that we were looking forward to and had worked very hard to get to,” she said, and expressed frustration about the lack of action around the incident.
A Winooski student named Ghamaray Osman spoke about an incident where her friend had her hijab removed at a basketball game at an unnamed high school, but officials sent that student home instead of the offending student, which Osman said made her afraid for her and her friend.
Sen. Brian Campion, a Democrat from Bennington and the committee chair, said he hoped to get together with the legislative council to explore what options exist so they can enter the next session better equipped to address student athletes’ concerns.
Sen. Andrew Perchlik, a Washington County progressive, expressed his dissatisfaction with the principals’ association’s response to the multiple incidents of fan harassment that occurred in the fall.
“I think at the time, we weren’t sure what we could do, but (the principals’ association) said they were working on it, but if they’re not working on it and we’re not making progress then, as the chair said, we’re definitely interested in working with students and schools to pass something next year that we could show we can make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Heather Hobart, executive director at the Lamoille Restorative Center and parent, said she had been involved in the process of trying to seek answers from the principals’ association after the Missisquoi incident and enumerated her frustrations with the process, noting that currently both schools involved in an incident of fan harassment had to agree for a third-party investigation to occur and the expense of such an investigation.
Jay Nichols, president of the principals’ association, said he had not heard the committee testimony as of Tuesday evening, but defended his organization’s response to the incidents of fan harassment.
“While there will be ongoing need for continuous improvement, I believe that the VPA has been both a responsive and proactive partner with our broader communities in ensuring safe and welcoming learning environments. The VPA and its members aim for no incidents of harm or hate to occur at interscholastic events, and we will need broad community support and collaboration to make that a reality,” he said in a statement.
Along with several initiatives aimed at promoting equity and diversity training in certain schools, the principals’ association also issued revised guidance in April that requires a response to hateful language from fans that involves ejection, ending the game, continuing the game without fans, among other possible responses.