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Panel Says Alleged Racial Slurs At High School Game Were Likely 'Isolated In Nature'

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Penn Hills High School's boys soccer team played at Connellsville Stadium Sept. 6.

Despite admitting uncertainty about its findings, a panel has concluded that Penn Hills High School soccer players likely were targets of racial slurs at a Sept. 6 game against Connellsville Area High School.

The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League said in a statement Wednesday that its Board of Directors Hearing Panel also found the alleged remarks likely were “isolated in nature” and not reflective of the Connellsville community as a whole.

The panel heard testimony from at least 20 witnesses at a drawn-out session Monday evening, according to the league’s executive director, Tim O’Malley. O’Malley said athletes, coaches, and spectators from each school testified. He credited Connellsville for conducting its own investigation, although it didn’t turn up evidence that slurs were used.

“Something probably was said in the heat of competition,” O’Malley said. “That was verified by the testimony given. Connellsville gave [an] indication that they could not substantiate that that occurred - that was validated by their testimony.”

O’Malley declined to discuss the testimony in detail, saying the hearing was closed.

Connellsville superintendent Joseph Bradley wrote in a statement Wednesday that, as part of its investigation, his district gathered “statements from [Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association] registered officials, video footage of the game, including audio, testimony from the security personnel, coaches and players, as well as unsolicited eye witness accounts."

“Their opinion was that the allegations made were incorrect, they didn’t occur,” O’Malley said of Connellsville, located about a 50-mile drive southeast of Pittsburgh.

Bradley said Connellsville was “pleased to see that the WPIAL found the results of our investigation, including our student’s statements, to be credible.”

Penn Hills superintendent Nancy Hines said in a separate statement that she also was “pleased that the [board] found credibility in the testimony provided by Penn Hills representatives.” In addition, she said her district supports the finding that the alleged behavior is not reflective of Connellsville as a whole.

Hines’ statement advised athletes to notify a coach, game official, or school personnel if they experience or witness abusive behavior in the future. Those adults, Hines wrote, should remain vigilant in addressing such issues, and even halt play if necessary.

In its statement, the league said Connellsville must provide racial and cultural sensitivity training to its students and coaches, with the help of an outside consultant. Connellsville’s Bradley wrote that his district “respects and will fully comply” with the board’s decision.

“We’ll comply with anything the [league] recommends, and we might take it even a step further,” added Connellsville school board president Francis Mongell.

Mongell said his district has previously offered instruction on race and racial tensions, including sessions at its middle and high schools with Fayette County District Attorney Richard Bower as well as state and local police.

“And it’s not because we’ve had problems,” Mongell said. “It’s just because we want to make sure that all of our students, especially those that are in middle school and high school are fully aware of what’s going around us and in the area.”

Mongell said he’s been on the Connellsville school board since 1995 and that the overwhelmingly white district hasn’t had problems with racial conflict in sports in the past.

“We play athletics against teams that are just total opposite – you know, 90-10, with 10 percent white – and we just don’t seem to have problems with that,” he said.

Asked why the accusations arose at the Sept. 6 game, Mongell said, “I don’t know – it’s just difficult to explain.”

Still, Mongell said, he takes the issue seriously.

“We will do everything … that [the league] wants us to do,” he said.

This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. on Wed., Sept. 26, to include comments from the superintendents of Connellsville and Penn Hills and the president of the Connellsville Board of Directors.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.