Less than a week ago, Covington Catholic High School was known mostly for its seven state titles in football and its rousing motto, “A spirit that will not die.”
By Tuesday, its phones had been shut off, its website and social media accounts had gone dark, police cars were barricading its entrances, and classes were canceled along with a basketball game as the overwhelmingly white, all-boys school found itself a symbol of the nation’s deep divisions over race, class and culture.
The transformation began with an online video that appeared to show a group of Covington Catholic boys in “Make American Great Again” hats mocking a Native American protester as he beat a ceremonial drum at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Friday. Subsequent videos showed a more complicated three-way confrontation, involving a cluster of men calling themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites who hurled insults at the boys and the Native Americans.
“People saw the original video and took an early side, and they are just not budging from that side,” said Hayden Bode, who graduated from Covington Catholic last year and was part of a small group who came to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington on Tuesday to support the students.
In the wake of the incident, parents, alumni and others have rallied to the school’s defense, with many changing their social media profiles to say things like “I stand with Covington Catholic High School.” Others, though, have gone on the attack against the 586-student school, situated just outside Covington in Park Hills.
Sarah Buckley, who attended an all-girls Catholic school across the street, played in the band at athletic events and graduated in 2013, said Covington Catholic has “a culture of entitlement, of machismo, of masculinity.”
“I witnessed people from Covington Catholic saying homophobic slurs, some saying racist things,” she said. “They would say misogynistic comments, and it was just accepted within the culture there.”
Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic student seen smiling in the videos as he stood face-to-face with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, has said he heard no one from the school chant anything hateful. He told NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday that he wasn’t disrespectful and that he has nothing to apologize for. Sandmann said he isn’t racist and neither are his classmates.
But Phillips said he heard students shout, “Build that wall!” and “Go back to the reservation!” And some were seen on video making the tomahawk-chop gesture.
Both Sandmann and Phillips have said they were trying to keep the peace in a volatile situation.
As Covington Catholic reopened Wednesday under the watch of law enforcement after calling off classes Tuesday because of threats of violence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed “far-left activists” and the media for the attacks on the students.
“Far-left activists and members of the national and state media isolated a very few seconds of video footage from any shred of context and many decided it was time to attack and denigrate these young people,” the Kentucky Republican said.
On Tuesday, a photo circulated on social media showing students at a 2011 Covington Catholic basketball game dressed all in black and wearing black paint on their bodies and faces as they yelled at a black player from an opposing school.
But the school’s defenders said there was nothing racial going on. Schools and colleges around the country have been known to hold “blackouts” or “whiteouts” to boost school spirit by getting fans to dress in that color, and some students go further by painting their faces.
Adam Fatkin, who played in the game for the opposing Clark County team, said in an email Wednesday that he never heard any racist remarks from the student section. He said his black teammate was being yelled at “simply because he was a player on the opposing team.”
Joe Nienaber, a 1989 Covington Catholic graduate and a county commissioner in Kenton County, where the school is situated, said the photo “totally misrepresents the culture” at the school. Nienaber said “nobody knows the story behind it,” and added: “I promise you, those people got talked to.”
Buckley, the Catholic girls’ school graduate, said “it’s not appropriate to ever do blackface,” and the students’ actions “fall upon the school.”
“Even if the students didn’t have any ill malice, that basically is like American History 101,” she said.
On Saturday, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington condemned the students’ actions and promised to take appropriate action “up to and including expulsion.” The strong statement upset many in the school’s orbit.
“There is a lot of folks who are upset at the diocese for not being as supportive as many alumni and parents of alumni have been,” said Adam Koenig, a Republican state representative who graduated from Covington Catholic in 1989.
The diocese issued a second statement on Tuesday, saying a “third-party investigation” will look into the “very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people.” It did not retract the previous criticism.
Covington Catholic opened in 1925. Students are required to log at least 60 hours of community service to graduate. Its notable alumni include Pat Cipollone, who is now White House counsel.
“They graduate a lot of the folks that end up the civic leaders of northern Kentucky,” said Chris McDaniel, a Republican state senator whose district includes the school.
John Schickel, another GOP state senator, called it “completely unfair” for the students “to be drug through the mud like this.” But he said it offered a teachable moment.
“This is the world we live in today and it’s not fair,” he said. “Their responsibility is to stand up for what’s true and what’s right.”
Beam reported from Frankfort, Kentucky.