COVINGTON, Ky. – Omaha Tribe elder Nathan Phillips says he felt intimidated by a group of Covington Catholic High School students chanting at the Lincoln Memorial.
Nick Sandmann, a junior at the Park Hills private school, expressed that he harbored no ill will toward Phillips, and that he and his classmates were simply exercising school spirit.
Millions viewed the encounter, sparking a national debate on who deserved more blame for the confrontation. Interviews with more than a dozen individuals connected to the incident or the school revealed this:
While some Covington Catholic supporters deny the students behaved inappropriately on the National Mall and have even applauded their conduct, the scene came as no surprise to others who have questioned the behavior of the school’s students in the past.
“It’s unfortunate how it all gets painted, how kids did the school cheering,” said Myles Mahan, 29, of Louisville and a 2007 graduate of CovCath. “No one understands that’s a big part of going to Covington Catholic, going to football and basketball games. … You’re part of the best cheering section in the state.”
More: Make America Great Again hats have become a hot-button issue
Sandmann, in a statement released Sunday night, said students who were in Washington for the March for Life anti-abortion rally broke into chants after asking permission of a chaperone to counter vile words hurled at the teens by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.
Phillips, who was in the nation’s capital for the Indigenous Peoples March and witnessed the back and forth, walked up to the CovCath students while beating a drum and chanting.
Sandmann’s classmates yelled and gesticulated as he and Phillips stood face-to-face. Some students performed the tomahawk chop.
Before that, a student removed his shirt and led his classmates in a chant.
Covington Catholic is known for its zealous chanting, according to alumni. They say the school takes pride in its sports.
But to some opponents at past games, students’ actions can feel abrasive, even racially insensitive.
Phillip Hawkins, 21 and a senior at the University of Kentucky, played high school basketball before the Colonel Crazies, the name given the school’s student cheering section. He remembers a game during the 2014-15 season in which CovCath played host to his Cooper High School team from Boone County.
“I went to the free throw line,” Hawkins said by phone, “and I heard ‘car-a-mel, car-a-mel, car-a-mel.’ “
Hawkins is black. His mother and 12-year-old brother were watching the game.
Brenda Hawkins, 57 and a Florence resident, was shocked and disappointed. She regrets not calling school officials, but was concerned about drawing additional attention to her son.
The family is Catholic, and Brenda Hawkins wanted to send her son to a Catholic school but couldn’t afford to, so her son was playing for the public Cooper school.
“That’s not the Catholic way,” Phillip Hawkins said. “God doesn’t discriminate, whether black or white or whatever.”
Despite the incident, he defended the school and its students. Some of his friends are CovCath graduates.
“There are bad apples everywhere, no matter where you go,” he said.
Phillip Hawkins saw in the viral incident with American Indian Phillips a minority being treated similarly to how he was years ago.
“It kind of brought me back to high school when all that stuff happened to me,” he said. “I was surprised, but then again I kind of wasn’t surprised because this isn’t the first time, and it’s sad to say, I hope it is, but I’m sure it’s not the last time.”
More: Fuller video casts new light on students’ encounter with Native American elder
In 2004, USA TODAY named Covington Catholic among the top schools in the country for watching high school hoops.
“Every game has (a) theme, and students dress accordingly: Toga Night, Village People night,” USA TODAY reported then.
In the past several years, the school has held various color-themed game nights: blue, white, black. Some students have darkened their torsos and faces on blackout nights, evoking blackface to some.
But others contend the paint is simply part of a spirited school culture, one whose motto is “with a spirit that will not die.”
“That’s largely related to the Holy Spirit,” said Kentucky state Rep. Adam Koenig, an Erlanger Republican and 1989 graduate of the school. “But it also is related to the athletic spirit.”
After making public his stance that the students in the videos “were not the villains they were made out to be,” Koenig said he became the target of vitriol himself. One person shamed him for “siding with racism.”
More: Native American: ‘Mob mentality’ in students seen in viral video was ‘scary’
Kris Knochelmann, the top elected official in Kenton County who serves as judge-executive, had two sons graduate within the past four years from CovCath.
“All kids from any high school should be given the benefit of the doubt,” Knochelmann said, “and they need to be allowed to be kids.”
He also spoke of an irreparable harm done to those falsely accused and condemned a widespread “rush to judgment.”
Koenig called for an evaluation of chaperoning at CovCath, though he stressed he wasn’t criticizing those on the trip in question.
“And I think, by and large, the kids did (represent themselves well),” Koenig said. “Are there lessons to be learned? Absolutely. Should they have been vilified in the way they have been? Of course not.”
Clips of CovCath students in black paint, some of which were posted by school officials to an official YouTube channel, reignited debate about the culture of the school this week.
“If full upper body black body paint is offensive, I’m confident that the administration will address it going forward,” said Bill Schult, a 2007 graduate from the school, “as racial insensitivity has not and does not reflect CovCath’s values.”
Schult said a photograph showing students – some wearing black paint on their faces and torsos – chanting at an athlete was taken at a home game.
The photo is shown above. The Enquirer has not determined who first posted it, but did determine it was captured during a Nov. 29, 2011, basketball game at CovCath.
Schult recognized a student in the photo as a 2012 CovCath graduate.
Using schedules, video and news archives, The Enquirer identified the Clark County athlete seen in the photograph as Charlie Rogers Jr.
Rogers was unavailable for comment. But his brother and a friend also identified him as the person in the photo.
Tony Rogers, who is not related to Charlie Rogers but is a friend, condemned the students’ use of black paint.
“It makes me sick,” he said. “They shouldn’t be doing that. … Blackface always bothers black people.”
He added the photo evokes, for him, racism and bigotry, as well as the privilege to treat the expression of those evils with minimal concern for the consequences.
Joe Mallory, the Cincinnati NAACP’s first vice president, condemned the students painted in black in the photo.
“This is disgusting and speaks to deeper issues of privilege (and) entitlement,” he said by text.
A video posted in January 2018 to the school’s official YouTube channel also shows students’ faces and bodies painted black during games. The video was removed this week.
In the clips, students sway together while belting choreographed chants for their team.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Mahan, the 2007 graduate, said. “It’s a bunch of guys going to school together and having a great time.”
He pointed to the news media for making “someone look so bad” and sympathized with Michael Hodge, who was misidentified on social media as Nick Sandmann and whose family received threats of violence.
“What this all stems down to me is, they are kids,” Mahan said. “To blast them in the national media and put a (teenager’s) picture on the front page of a newspaper? … It’s really sad.”
Sandmann, in his statement, said he harbored no ill will toward Phillips.
“I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen – that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African Americans or Native Americans,” he said.
More: ‘Blatant racism’: Ky. high school apologizes following backlash
In response, Phillips told The Enquirer he disputes Sandmann’s statement.
The students “had an opportunity to not hate and to put out an olive branch and say, ‘Let’s sit down and pray together,’ ” Phillips said. “Instead, they responded to hate with hate.”
On Jan. 19, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High issued a joint statement condemning the students for their actions toward “Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general.”
Neither the principal nor the athletic director of Covington Catholic returned messages seeking comment for this story.
On Tuesday, the diocese said there would be a third-party investigation into the incident.
“It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate,” the diocese said.
Kaya Taitano, a Chamoru activist from Guam, captured video of the incident in question. She disputed Nick’s account.
“It wasn’t the school chant,” she wrote in a message. “I know how high schools are. It was the way they were mocking his (Phillips’) chant.”
She called for guidance for the students, not expulsions.
“The way they were acting has been normalized and THAT is not okay,” she wrote. “This was a big joke to them.”
Phillips earlier told the Detroit Free Press that he approached the students in an attempt to defuse things between them and the Black Hebrew Israelites. But then he felt he’d put himself “between a rock and hard place.”
A Covington Catholic trip chaperone, Val Andreev, stands by how the students acted.
“There was nothing the chaperones could have done differently,” said Andreev, a Hebron resident. “I’m very proud (of) the way the boys handled the situation.”
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples March and an attorney for the Lakota People’s Law Project, has a different opinion.
He witnessed several Native Americans “standing in the face of 50 highly aggressive and testosterone-driven young people who were kind of mobbing around the area for 10 minutes,” Iron Eyes said. “They were really very organized in their chanting.”
Mahan, the 2007 CovCath graduate, said that he felt the students were being “obnoxious.”
“But there was no malicious intent in the cheering,” he said.
Schult, another alum, also said the students were “obnoxious” and “rambunctious.” But he felt race played no role in their actions, and he pointed to provocation by the Black Hebrew Israelites.
More: Alyssa Milano: ‘I won’t apologize’ for comparing MAGA hat to KKK hood
He did, however, say students should reconsider wearing political apparel while on a school trip and may have been better served by simply walking away, a sentiment Sandmann expressed on the “Today” show on NBC. Several students wore “Make America Great Again” hats.
“Things are rarely black and white, and the idea that these kids need to have death threats against them is wrong,” Schult said. “But the idea that there’s nothing to learn from this is wrong as well.”
Contributing: Jennie Key of the Enquirer