Canton students and families have begun emailing Hartford's Classical Magnet School to express their regrets and support after a group of Canton High School students taunted Classical's basketball players with "Trump" chants, which some found racially motivated, during a high-stakes varsity game this week.
"Although our team won fair and square 48-47 in the semifinal at Canton, we were extremely disappointed in the behavior of some Canton fans in the stands who were chanting 'Trump, Trump, Trump' throughout the game and carrying similar banners," Classical Principal Zandralyn Gordon said in a letter to the school community Thursday.
Hartford school officials said apologies have arrived from Canton High's principal and Canton residents since Tuesday's taunts. Canton Schools Superintendent Kevin Case has acknowledged that about seven or eight students chanted President Donald Trump's surname as Classical players attempted foul shots.
Spectators at the game who were there to support Classical — a city school with predominantly black and Latino students — said the chants occurred throughout the game, and not just at the free throw line. They also reported seeing Trump signs and Trump-Pence campaign apparel in the Canton fan section. Azaria Porter, 16, a Classical junior who is team manager for the boys' basketball squad, said the chants included a sing-song, "He's our president!"
"I'm not sure what politics has to do with basketball," Porter said Thursday. "It was just annoying. It was like, OK, we get it."
Case said Thursday that he has also apologized for the Canton students' conduct and that a written apology will follow. He said a school investigation into the incident is continuing. He did not comment on possible disciplinary action against the students involved.
The students' conduct was also condemned by Canton's board of education. Board Chairwoman Julie Ausere said that she supports the administration's efforts so far.
"The actions were disrespectful to the opposing team and this does not reflect of the entire Canton community," Ausere said in a statement. "Any divisive or mean-spirited behavior goes against our board of education values of collaboration, kindness and integrity."
Classical defeated Canton in the semifinal conference game and will play in the North Central Connecticut Conference championship on Friday. But school leaders say Canton's loss reverberated beyond the scoreboard.
"While students' right to free speech and forming educated opinions about politics and current events is a cornerstone of our educational system, the exact point where political opinion converges with disrespect, discrimination or hate speech must be separated," Canton High Principal Andrew DiPippo wrote in a letter to families Wednesday.
"We have a reputation as a welcoming community and these students crossed this line with their comments and have damaged our reputation," DiPippo continued. "As principal, I am disheartened that our message of community has not resonated with all students."
School officials in Hartford, meanwhile, were aghast Wednesday. Acting Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez called the chants "unacceptable conduct." It's not the first time that suburban students have taunted Hartford student-athletes — last March, Farmington was in the spotlight when fans in that high school's student section chanted "SAT scores" during a playoff girls' basketball game against Capital Prep, another city magnet school.
As an olive branch of sorts, Farmington school leaders later attended a public forum that the Hartford school system hosted on race, racism and equity.
On Wednesday, Canton High convened the entire student body for an assembly to discuss what happened. DiPippo said the students who chanted during the game have been "spoken to directly," although Case declined to say whether the district planned to take any disciplinary action against the students. The school is still investigating the incident, Case said.
Torres-Rodriguez said she planned to speak with Canton school leadership about "moving ahead" in what has been a politically fraught period across the state and nation. According to news accounts, students in the affluent town of Wilton chanted "Build the wall!" during a football game last fall against Danbury High School — an apparent reference to Trump's call for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Danbury is home to many immigrants.
Hartford Public Schools "will take every step necessary to ensure that our students and families are protected from physical harm and emotional harassment," Torres-Rodriguez said in a statement. "It's sad that this would happen in an athletics setting. Schools are supposed to compete in good faith partnerships with the ultimate goal of supporting student growth."
Despite the chants, Classical Coach Reggie Tucker said his players stuck to their game plan: "Block out all the distractions."
"We were focused on trying to beat the No. 1 team in the conference — at their place — who we lost to a month ago," Tucker, who played basketball and graduated from Canton High in 1987, said Wednesday. Canton won 52-39 in early February. "My goal was those 14 young men on my bench and getting them in the game ... a really competitive high school game within a conference, and that's really what we were focused on."
As Tucker spoke, his team was preparing for Friday's championship. He held a team meeting before Wednesday's practice in which they talked about the Canton incident as a "teachable moment," he said — another lesson to "be relentless in your pursuit of excellence."
The team has leaned on a saying from former First Lady Michelle Obama: "When they go low, we go high."
"Sports, in my mind, is a reflection of life," said Tucker, who is also Classical's athletic director. "They're going to have situations in life like this ... . Just focus on what you have to do. That's mental toughness."
Monica Waite, a Canton parent, said she heard about the chants when her son came home from Canton High Wednesday and talked about the school assembly. She also read the letter from DiPippo, and while she considered it thoughtful, she planned to write a response letter to district leadership urging that the students involved in the taunting get more than a stern lecture.
"I'm just absolutely disgusted," Waite said of the incident. "I am embarrassed ... I am not happy that this is the school atmosphere that my son is in."
Case, the Canton superintendent, said the chants invoking Trump's name "could be perceived as offensive, and anything that is perceived as disrespectful or hateful we don't tolerate."
"This is not the kind of school community we have," Case said. "We work hard to be inclusive and I am disappointed in the students' behavior."