St. Joseph High School administrators on Wednesday dismissed the notion that a chant from a group of Righetti High School students at the end of Tuesday night's rivalry basketball game was intended to be racially charged.
The Righetti High student section chanted "Where's your passport?" as time ran out in Tuesday's game on the St. Joseph High campus, which St. Joseph won 74-57.
St. Joseph, a private school located across the street from Righetti, a public school, has a player from France on its roster and three players from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory which doesn't require a passport. Under coach Tom Mott, the Knights have consistently fielded teams with players from all over the world.
St. Joseph has beaten Righetti the last six times the teams have met on the court.
On Wednesday, Mott said he understood the chant could be interpreted as racist, but felt that was not the intent of the group of students who chanted it.
"I honestly think they were unaware they said a racist thing," Mott said. "They did not intend for it to be racist.”
St. Joseph Principal Erinn Dougherty was captured on video walking toward the Righetti students and briefly shouting at them as they were chanting. Dougherty then had a brief but heated interaction with Ted Lyon, an assistant principal at Righetti High.
"Just because I will not allow certain xenophobic statements to be made at my campus and I don’t want racially-charged rhetoric here doesn’t mean that I don’t love and respect the students of this whole community," Dougherty said Wednesday. "Not just the St. Joe students but the whole community. I think they were good kids who didn’t realize what they were saying."
Kind of a disappointing ending to a good game as the visiting student section chanted “where’s your passport?”, apparently at SJHS players. Administrators from both schools exchanged words. There was a charged atmosphere throughout the contest. #santamariatimes pic.twitter.com/xCQU7J5INA— Joe Bailey (@JBaileySMSports) February 12, 2020
Administrators from Righetti High would not comment on the incident. Instead, Santa Maria Joint Union High School District spokesman Kenny Klein released a brief statement citing "unacceptable comments" from both student sections.
"We are aware of the unacceptable comments exchanged from both sides of the basketball court during the heated rivalry between St. Joseph and Righetti High School Tuesday night," the statement read. "The incident is being addressed by SMJUHSD and RHS school officials. We have no further comment at this time."
Mott did say he wished young athletes didn't have to endure the type of taunting that can be heard inside a high school basketball gym.
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"It’s just sad that kids who are 15-, 16- or 17-years-old are called out for what they look like or where they’re from," Mott said.
Dougherty said she wished she had kept her cool a bit more at the time of the incident.
A Santa Maria Times video of students at Righetti High School chanting "where's your passport" at rival St. Joseph during a Tuesday night basketball game has sparked heated reactions on social media about what is seen as racism towards St. Joseph players from France and Puerto Rico.
"I’ve made mistakes and I probably made a mistake charging over there," Dougherty said. "I don’t want this to be damaging to somebody's career. We can all do better. Let's reflect on it, pray on it, and each school needs to focus on what we can do to be the best school for our kids.
"I am a person who wears her heart on her sleeve," she added. "I’m an easy crier. I love hard, I cry hard, I love my kids a lot ... All I can say is that I wished that I hadn’t scolded another administrator’s students. Obviously that had upset him, but I was in the mode of taking care of kids."
Dougherty, though, said she did not believe the event was an isolated incident, saying some of the St. Joseph student athletes had heard similar chants when the two teams played last month at Righetti High. Dougherty said that it bothered a few of the players.
"A student had come up to me, one of the players, and he had been upset after the last game," Dougherty said. "Another student came to me (Tuesday) morning and said he was nervous about it. It had been on my mind, but I had begun to feel smug because things had gone so swimmingly (at Tuesday's game)."
Mott said he doesn't think the incident will impact the rivalry between the two schools moving forward. He said administrators are planning on meeting early next week to discuss the episode and any changes that could be made to prevent something similar happening in the future.
"We hope to continue to play Righetti," he said. "I have a lot of friends who teach over there and that coach over there. A lot of our students' parents teach or work over there. We get along really well with (Righetti athletic director and coach) Kevin Barbarick. We absolutely love working with Kevin."
After watching the video, Mott felt Barbarick did try to stop the students from chanting as he was coaching the final seconds of the game.
"I talked to Kevin this morning and, after watching the video, I saw as soon as they started the chant that Kevin turned around and told them to be quiet and that’s exactly what you want your administrator to do," Mott said.
The game was the regular season finale. St. Joseph will prepare for the CIF Central Section Division 1 playoffs, which begin next week. Righetti's season is over as the Warriors will not play in the CIF-CS Division 2 playoffs.