When Rory Hoskins’ eighth-grade son got home last Thursday from a softball game against LaGrange Highlands (District 106), he told his dad that the N-word had been directed at members of his team by a Highlands player.
Hoskins, coach Christine Haase, Middle School Principal Joe Pisano, and District 91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo quickly got on the phone, first contacting D106 officials to talk about the behavior of one of their students and the lack of response on the part of the coach and the umpire, and second talking among themselves about how to make the incident, in Hoskins’ words, “a teachable moment.”
Here’s what happened according to a narrative pieced together by the Review from accounts of Forest Parkers who were at the game.
About the midpoint of the game, a Forest Park player caught a fly ball to end an inning, and as the players were running to the dugout from the field, a Highlands player allegedly yelled the N-word toward the Forest Park players.
Coach Haase said her players returned to the bench upset and “all grumbly. However, I was able to refocus and redirect them back to the game. We were able to finish the game and our boys were able to shake hands with members of the opposing team because they realized that the racial slur came from one boy and not the whole team.”
Connie Brown was at the game watching her son play.
“Coach Haase did an amazing job redirecting the boys to keep their head in the game,” she said, “to stay focused and be respectful after enduring such astounding disrespect. She not only appropriately addressed the incident with the boys to the best of her ability but also reprimanded them for shouting back an insult to the opposing team.
“We’re better than that!” Haase told them, according to Brown.
“I was standing right next to Coach Haase when she addressed the issue with the LaGrange Highlands Middle School softball coach,” Brown continued. “She was passionate, firm and level-headed. I was equally astounded by [the other coach’s] lack of acknowledgement, concern and compassion about the incident. It is so unacceptable me that this grown man didn’t stand up and take responsibility for the actions of his team, neither during the game nor immediately following.”
“I spoke with their coach,” Haase acknowledged, “and expressed my concerns. I spoke with the umpire, an older gentleman, who said he hadn’t heard anything.”
“The following morning,” said Pisano, “we immediately met with the players to discuss the incident. I am saddened that this incident occurred and that our students who participated in this game had to endure such disrespect, but I am very proud of the way our students handled themselves in this difficult situation.”
At the meeting, Haase also emphasized the positive. “We told them how proud we were of them for handling themselves the way they did, for being able to stay calm, step back and understand that because someone does something to you doesn’t mean that you can do something in return. We emphasized what they had done right. They had remained calm and had not allowed themselves to be baited into a reciprocal action.” Affirming positive behavior is consistent with the school’s approach to student behavior called PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support).
“In middle school,” Haase said, “we have to constantly reinforce that because it is easy to react without thinking. At the Friday morning meeting, we talked about what we learned from that experience. We told them that we can’t promise they will never encounter this kind of experience again but we repeated how proud we were of them.”
Pisano called the Highlands principal and the Forest Park athletic director contacted the D106 athletic director. Regarding those conversations, Supt. Cavallo said, “Our principal informed me that their principal was very angry about the behavior of his team and coach. He indicated that he would be taking appropriate action and would follow up with our principal on Monday. We do not know what action was taken at this time.”
Pisano said he planned to reach out to conference officials to see what action would be taken to address the situation and to offer strategies to help prevent similar incidents from happening.
Commenting on how the staff at the middle school was going to respond to the incident in the days to come, Pisano said, “We as a school and a community pride ourselves on embracing our multicultural student body. As we enter the month of October in which we begin our initiative which focuses on bullying and respect for others, we will use this experience as a teachable moment for our students.”
Haase said their game the next day also served to reinforce the boys’ positive behavior.
“The following day we had another game against LaGrange Park,” she noted, “which to our boys sounds similar to LaGrange Highlands, but they handled themselves well and had a good experience. The team from Park was really great. Our team said how much they liked the other team saying, ‘this kid is cool or that kid is cool.’ They didn’t overgeneralize from an incident involving one boy and they didn’t harbor ill will but moved on. For me it was a big ‘OK, they got it.'”
“Maybe there is a lesson somewhere here,” mused Hoskins. “I’m wondering if the body governing middle school sports has a policy on racial taunting. Where’s the fun and sportsmanship? I think this is something that should be discussed in the public sphere.”