Norfolk Public Schools has been placed on probation by the Nebraska School Activities Association after a racial slur toward the Omaha Northwest girls basketball team came from the high school’s student section during a Feb. 12 game.
The NSAA concluded its investigation Thursday. Its findings include several efforts the district is implementing to address the issue.
“(Norfolk Public Schools) was very thorough. They did a good job of doing their due diligence of who they had to talk to,” NSAA Executive Director Jay Bellar said. “They weren’t able to come up with one person who made the racial slur, but they put a lot of good things in place and we added some things.”
Besides submitting a formal apology letter to the Omaha Public Schools, the district has changed seating arrangements at activities and is developing an equity and diversity plan.
The plan, which will be for all grade levels, will evaluate and improve the district’s existing practices and create new practices to help make the district “a better place for all,” Norfolk school officials said in a written statement. They will be presenting the full plan to the NSAA Board of Directors in August.
“I think that’s going to be important because we need to use this as an educational piece for all kids and all adults in the community,” Bellar said. “I know they are going to do the work.”
Norfolk was placed on probation for the remainder of the school year to give the district sufficient time to start implementing the plan, Bellar said. If another incident were to occur before the year ended, the district could be subject to additional sanctions.
Bellar said the school couldn’t find a specific student or group of students who said the slur because there were too many stories of what happened. Omaha Northwest — its principal, Thomas Lee, is a member of the NSAA board — filed a formal complaint to the NSAA after coaches and players heard the racial slur from the Norfolk student section as they were exiting the court.
“Someone said something completely inappropriate, and (the school district) is taking the brunt of this,” Bellar said.
A separate investigation by the district has been completed, but its findings are confidential due to privacy, according to the district.
The Norfolk Board of Education voted unanimously not to appeal the NSAA’s decision during an executive session Thursday. Board members and administrators are “extremely disappointed by this unfortunate incident,” according to the district’s statement.
“We are very sorry that this egregious incident occurred. I hope that people know this does not reflect Norfolk Public Schools as a whole,” said Sandy Wolfe, board president. “We believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect and will work to ensure that everyone feels welcome and safe within our schools.”
The district said it would work with students and fans to ensure they understand that acts of racism and other unsportsmanlike conduct would not be tolerated.
An apology letter from school staff, students and administrators was published in The World-Herald on Thursday:
“Please accept this apology on behalf of the Norfolk Panthers for the experience you had in our school on 2/12/2021. No person should ever be subjected to racism or derogatory comments. We are deeply sorry you had this experience as a guest in our school. We do not want these inappropriate actions to represent our school or community. It is not who we strive to be.
“We know an apology is not enough to take away your hurt, but we hope that it can be a first step in healing our relationship with Omaha Northwest High School. We wish you the best in district competition and look forward to sharing the court with you in a more positive manner in the future.”