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Ex-York High AD upset by 'racially insensitive' band outfits worn during Pa. football game

JONATHAN D. SILVER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Ron Coursey is shown here during his days as the York High athletic director.

Woodland Hills Athletic Director Ron Coursey didn't see the Peters Township High School marching band perform before a home crowd at Friday night's playoff football game.

But when the former York High AD made it to the sidelines, he soon got an earful about it.

His coaches and cheerleaders complained that at least two Peters students — drum majors — wore what they described as "blackface."

In fact, it wasn't blackface — the band members were actually wearing black spandex full-body suits under their bright white outfits — but the impression did not sit well with the students, officials and spectators from Woodland Hills, a predominantly Black school district that draws from the eastern Allegheny County suburbs.

"I think they were upset. I think they were hurt. I think they were offended. And I think there was a level of shock and disappointment that in 2020 we would still have to endure something like this," Coursey, who is Black, said Monday.

York High AD Coursey hired for new job in western Pa.

"I urged them to act appropriately in response to what had taken place. But at the same time, I think they were frustrated and angry and hurt that somebody would not, at the very least, have the foresight to understand that this may be a little bit inappropriate considering that Woodland Hills is predominantly an African-American school district," Coursey said. "For us to be playing a school in a school district that is essentially the polar opposite of us as far as demographics, I would suggest that didn't help the situation much either."

Seeking out Peters officials: Coursey, who was the York High AD from January of 2016 until May of 2017, said he and several colleagues at the game immediately sought out Peters officials. The band director, he said, apologized on the spot, had the students remove the outfits and insisted that there was no malice or intended racial overtones. Coursey said the band director told him the students had dressed up for Halloween.

Coursey has been the Woodland Hills AD since July of 2017. Woodland Hills has produced numerous NFL players over the years, including Miles Sanders, Rob Gronkowski and Jason Taylor.

It's not clear why the students wore the body suits, whether they contemplated the potential reaction or whether any adult was aware or approved of the costumes.

"I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to see the good in all people, but I think I would be 100% naive if I did not at least accept the fact that there is a possibly of racial bias or racial undertone involved when a situation like this occurs," Coursey said. "At the very least it was racially insensitive and quite honestly poorly thought out."

WPIAL gets involved: Woodland Hills notified the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, which has requested accounts from both schools by the end of Wednesday.

The league cannot mete out discipline because it governs athletic teams, not marching bands. But its executive director, Amy Scheuneman, said the matter would be sent to a panel that advises the board on diversity and inclusion with the likely result being a recommendation for education, not punishment. The board will probably address the issue at its Nov. 16 meeting, she said.

Call of apology: James Harris, the Woodland Hills superintendent, said his counterpart at Peters — whose team won handily, 39-6 — called him Sunday to apologize.

"She seems like a very nice lady, very professional, very well spoken, very apologetic," said Harris, who is Black.

Asked what Peters Superintendent Jeannine French apologized for, Harris said, "I would assume it's the bad judgment of the band members, the drum majors, the musical director, for allowing that to occur without a little more thought behind it."

Shelly Belcher, a spokeswoman for the Peters school district, said French — who was not at the game — could not comment because she is the "final decision maker on all personnel matters." Belcher declined to make anyone else available for an interview.

" Peters Township School District does not condone or permit discrimination. The District is investigating the student costume choices from Friday night's football game and reviewing the actions or inactions on behalf of District staff present at the game," the district said in a prepared statement.

"The District has taken this matter very seriously. We have reached out to the Superintendent, Athletic Director and other staff members at Woodland Hills for their assistance as we continue the investigation," Belcher said in an email.

Historical backdrop: While neither Coursey nor Harris said they knew the motivation for the Peters students to dress the way they did, they said the incident comes against a historical backdrop of racial friction at athletic events involving Woodland Hills. Problems are so entrenched that Coursey said he and his staff counseled the football players prior to the game — just as they do when the team plays against other opponents, particularly in the South Hills — to shrug off any epithets or slurs and stay classy.

"Oftentimes when it's called out, either officials make the statement they didn't hear it or it's not addressed," Coursey said.

He hopes this latest situation creates a teachable moment and leads to a formal apology from Peters along with a dialogue between the two districts.