La Cañada High School and district officials said they have launched a comprehensive investigation into allegedly offensive language and behavior attributed to a specific group of student fans at a CIF championship basketball game between LCHS and Ontario Colony High School at Azusa Pacific University on Feb. 23. The alleged language was described in a first-person, front-page editorial column by Outlook publisher Charlie Plowman on Feb. 28.
Part of the investigation will entail interviewing students, teachers and support staff, reviewing photos and or video from the game, and reaching out to Colony. Though a date to conclude the process has not been set, as of The Outlook’s press deadline on Wednesday, administrators said they have not confirmed that such offensive, foul, racist or homophobic language was used by any fans at the game.
“The administration is taking this extremely seriously and vigilantly. We are in the process of conducting a full-scale investigation,” said La Cañada Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Sinnette. “We cannot condone an environment whereby these things take place. … If what Charlie reported was in fact said, that needs to be substantiated and disciplinary consequences need to be issued.
“We had extensive supervision at this event,” Sinnette added. “My initial report is that they did not hear this. None of our administration, none of our support staff and none of our teachers who were present have reported hearing any of this. We will continue to investigate that.”
In his column, Plowman said he heard a “relatively small group” of LCHS students direct a litany of profane, offensive insults, which ranged from homophobic to racist, at Colony’s players. Plowman was seated directly below some of the students, in the press section, which extended the length of the gym’s basketball court.
In a statement on Wednesday, Plowman said people who denied the words were used at the game “are simply wrong. These vulgarities I cited absolutely occurred. 100% no doubt.”
He said other members of the media also heard the language, but “These reporters have asked for confidentiality and I respect that. So to [people] who said it didn’t happen, they are simply incorrect. I’m not saying they are dishonest. I’m simply saying they weren’t sitting with … us media folks who were within earshot of the students.”
Because of intense noise and echo in the gymnasium, Plowman said, a person would have had to be nearly directly in front of or beside the students to have heard the taunts. That was confirmed by another sports reporter at the game.
The Outlook reached out to other media representatives who were present at the game, and none would speak on the record or permit use of their names. Their reasons varied from not wanting to become part of a news story to fearing problems from a district whose sports teams they will continue to cover.
A reporter who wished to remain anonymous confirmed he heard what Plowman reported.
“It was a constant spew of f-words,” sometimes used in conjunction with “bitch” and “pussy,” he said. “It was directed at specific players every time they came down the court with the ball. I had never heard anything that bad at a game, of all the games I’ve covered. This was over the top. I never heard the n-word, but I really did think that was coming at one point because they were so out of control.”
Longtime LCHS basketball coach Tom Hofman said he hopes the alleged behavior will be resolved by the administration.
“It’s very unfortunate that a few of our students made inappropriate remarks in our game against Colony. This behavior is not acceptable and I guarantee you that our administration and the basketball program will do everything in our power to see that this does not happen again in the future,” Hofman said. “The majority of our students have supported the program in a positive fashion and it’s a shame that a few students have tarnished our school’s image. I am looking forward to my 34th season next year and the positive support from our student body and community.”
EARLIER INCIDENT WAS REPORTED
The Outlook spoke to a handful of individuals who said they heard similar language being used at other games during the basketball season, though only two would speak on the record.
Kathy Hollimon, who works for the district as a consultant, said she was at a La Cañada tournament game at LCHS versus San Gabriel Academy on Dec. 6 when she heard racist and homophobic taunts. She said five to seven student fans were the offenders, and she reported the incident directly to LCUSD officials several days later.
“The students in the student section were just screaming, screaming … ‘[derogatory term for gays], go back to the jungle, go back to Africa.’ It was disgusting,” Hollimon said. “I’ve seen a lot of people get very heated at basketball games. I’m used to people yelling at the refs, yell about the game, but they were screaming at the players personally.”
Hollimon said she did not recognize any teachers or staff who might have been present in the stands at the time.
“I reported it directly to the district office instead of reporting it to social media because I wanted to give them a chance to remedy this issue,” said Hollimon, who spoke with Sinnette at the time and felt the superintendent took the report very seriously. “I think she attempted to address it. She didn’t make excuses. But whatever happened clearly wasn’t enough. … When I saw Charlie’s [column] I wholeheartedly believed him because it’s exactly what I experienced.”
Hollimon also said she’s been taken aback by some of the response to the column within the community and on social media that has ranged from calls to action to denial to personal attacks on Plowman.
“It makes me concerned and sad. The narrative of the story has become about all these other poor kids who didn’t do this, and yes, of course there are good kids,” she said. “I don’t want to try to paint all these students with the same brush, but what kind of culture allows even a small group of students to keep doing this without repercussions? And how do these good kids not self-monitor their peers? And what about the victims of this vile language?”
Sinnette confirmed she took a report from Hollimon, whom she considers “a well-respected” contractor with the district. After that, there was an investigation with disciplinary consequences meted out, the superintendent said. Changes also were made to the pattern of supervision at the basketball games, including increased adult supervision and support staff and a reconfiguration of the student fan section.
In the eight years since Sinnette has been superintendent, the district has received four reports of discriminatory behavior, she said. Three of those reports, including Plowman’s, have centered on foul language reportedly used at basketball games. Another report came from a family that did not feel welcome at an elementary school site.
“We were very responsive to [Hollimon’s] report. But [Charlie’s] report has escalated our response to a higher level. Obviously, we need to continue to do more. … We will gear up again and redouble our efforts,” she said.
In an earlier conversation, she also said, “We are very, very serious about changing the environment and culture and to create a safe and inclusive [one].”
‘WELCOME REGIMEN’ PLANNED BY SCHOOL
Sinnette, along with district Governing Board President Brent Kuszyk, noted that the basketball team’s games generate by far the greatest number of fans in the stands, and that the school will amplify efforts to ensure the alleged behavior doesn’t continue. Part of those efforts will include instituting a new “welcome regimen or protocol,” in which an administrator in charge at a sporting event announces himself on the microphone to the crowd, welcomes both sides, articulates what fan conduct should be and how to report anything inappropriate or of concern.
Though Kuszyk emphasized that the investigation is ongoing, he said LCUSD must further efforts to be seen and felt as an all-inclusive, safe environment.
“Profanity and discrimination are not tolerated and we take it very seriously,” he said. “We’re all in this together as a community, and in order to ensure the best behavior we need everybody to be vigilant in communication.”
But Sinnette, Kuszyk and LCHS Principal Jim Cartnal also expressed sadness and frustration over the way the latest report was made. Officials said the front-page editorial column by publisher and longtime community member Plowman appeared to be a news article, confusing many people. They said they wished Plowman had reached out directly to staff at the game so they could have identified and stopped the behavior he found troubling.
PRINCIPAL DIDN’T HEAR OBJECTIONABLE LANGUAGE
Cartnal, who was at the game, said he did not hear any of the language that Plowman wrote about. Since the column was published, Cartnal also has reached out directly to Colony administrators and said they have “no information concerning this language.”
He also takes umbrage at Plowman’s comment that administration and staff at the game may have heard the foul language and did nothing to stop it.
“The allegations in Mr. Plowman’s column were that the administration was willingly doing nothing in the face of that language, so I think he would understand that I would strongly disagree,” Cartnal said. “I was at the game. We employed our supervision staff in a coordinated and intentional way. We even got complimented by CIF at the end of the game for how we dealt with our fans. If people hear something, we want them to say something and we’ll react immediately and decisively to uphold what are the expected behavioral norms at our school. But we were never afforded that chance, because no one did say anything, and even when asked, nothing was reported. We are in the business of holding kids accountable.”
Thom Simmons, CIF Southern Section assistant commissioner, said no complaints regarding fan behavior have been lodged with the organization regarding the LCHS-Colony game. In an email, Simmons noted that “CIF Southern Section playoff contests are conducted under the strictest code of good sportsmanship.”
Former LCHS Athletic Director Randy Boal is familiar with the CIF code of contact. He said he was at a basketball game between LCHS and Burbank High School on March 12, during the first round of the CIF playoffs.
Boal said he also heard offensive language being used by a handful of student fans, about three of whom were the most vocal and disturbing. He said it bothered him so much, he doesn’t think he’ll return to another game.
During the game, Boal said, an opponent player fell badly and hurt his ankle. (The Outlook confirmed separately that a Burbank player broke his ankle at that game.)
“The [kids] in the LCHS student section were pointing and laughing and making fun of the injured player. The players also pointed at the official when they didn’t like a call, shouting, ‘You suck!’ repeatedly,” Boal said. “I have utmost respect for [LCHS basketball] coach Hofman, and he would not tolerate any of his players doing that. I’ll always support [Hofman]. But I don’t want to be around that kind of tone and behavior. Our students shouldn’t act that way. You can yell and scream for your team all you want, but you don’t have to be disrespectful to the opponent. You should cheer for your team and that’s it.”
LCUSD officials have estimated there were about 300 LCHS fans in the crowd at the Feb. 23 game against Colony, something of which the student body is proud.
Some of those students sat down with The Outlook to express how upset they are with statements in Plowman’s column and the fallout it has generated. The fan group, including members of the Associated Student Body and the Athletic Leadership Council, went to great lengths to whip up school spirit and attendance for the game.
ASB President Christian Chung said he wants people to know LCHS is a welcoming, diverse school filled with hard-working, well-meaning students.
“One of our biggest issues with the [column] is that it seemed to paint a broad brush of the student body population here. It seemed to say that LCHS is an environment that tolerates homophobia and racism, and that simply is not something that we can stand behind,” Chung said. “Whether these students did that or not, the opinion that LCHS tolerates this kind of hate, that is something we would like to reject.”