Student Athletes Express Concerns about Playing at Ketchikan

    JDHS seniors Gabbi George-Frank, far left, and Rebekah Grube, left, look on as students sign a petition seeking to move the Region V basketball tournament from Ketchikan to Juneau. (Klas Stolpe)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - On Tuesday student athletes from Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé circulated a petition in the school commons over their lunch period seeking to have the upcoming Region V basketball tournament moved from Ketchikan following allegations of racism raised during a recent game between Ketchikan and Metlakatla.

      JDHS girls basketball team captain Rebekah Grube said she was concerned that lessons had not been learned following that game.

      “We just came back there this weekend from playing games and we don’t feel like anything has changed," she said. "There are parents there holding signs that say, ‘woke up, support our students’ and ‘labels are for food not students.’ We just feel like they are in support of what happened and we don’t feel the administration is doing much to change it. I know many Alaska Native members on my team don’t feel safe going back there. They have expressed concerns traveling back there, as well as other cheer teams, dance teams, pep bands, and other basketball teams. I also don’t feel like it would be fair for Metlakatla to have to go back especially. So we are signing this in hopes to change that.”

      The Ketchikan Borough Gateway School District earlier this month said it was investigating allegations of racist behavior at a game between Ketchikan and Metlakatla, the only Native reserve in Alaska. Media reports said concerns were raised by some who attended the game about Ketchikan student fans wearing Western clothes like cowboy hats and making noises they said were inappropriate. Metlakatla's mayor, Albert Smith, said the initial response to what transpired downplayed what occurred "as an act merely of 'cultural insensitivity.'" He said he wants measures in place so nothing like that happens again.

      The JDHS girls team played at Ketchikan last weekend.

      “At times I just feel uncomfortable,” Crimson Bears senior Gabbi George-Frank said of playing at Ketchikan. “Because it would have been one thing if the students realized what was wrong, but when we went there we still saw signs defending themselves… I don’t know, it just made me very uncomfortable as an Indigenous person to see these people not realize that what they were doing was wrong and then continue to defend it once it has been explained to them. It’s just not showing any growth. So it is just a very unfortunate situation.”

      Grube and George-Frank said they had not reached out to any players on the Kayhi girls team and did not really know them that well.

      “We just want to bring awareness to it and that we don’t want to support that sort of behavior,” George-Frank said. “Or to have that sort of behavior go without any sort of consequences from any other level.”

      Grube said she has not experienced any racism at Ketchikan personally, “but I know people who have, so it’s for them.”

      The petition says the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District has not given the incident the response it deserves and contends the tournament should be moved to Juneau.

      The petition received 255 signatures over the school lunch period.

      Crimson Bears girls coach Steve Potter said he became aware of the petition signing after it occurred.

      “In these times, kids are certainly entitled to both express their feelings and voice their opinions,” Potter said. “The only instances of inappropriate fan behavior I am aware of were immediately dealt with by Kayhi administration. I am planning to talk with the girls today at practice to see where they are coming from and, or, what I missed.”

      The incident was sparked by a Western or "country” theme night organized by the Ketchikan Pep Club. The night is one of many the school, and other schools, use for spirit weeks and are usually scheduled in advance without consideration of opponent schedules. 

      Ketchikan High School and the Ketchikan Pep Club have apologized. The club said its actions were "not malicious," and acknowledged the "cultural insensitivity" of the theme, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

      JDHS principal Paula Casperson said decisions on tournament venues go through the Region V board and adhere to their bylaws and process.

      “I think for us to function within Region V we need to trust that as part of the process,” Casperson said. “I think that the action we see coming from students, in reaction to events or media coverage, etc. etc., this is a great way for them to figure out what their voice is, how to be heard, and how to follow a process. The students who are working on this right now feel very passionately about having their voice heard and about taking a stance they believe shows support and I am happy to see them do that. It isn’t a school sponsored or sanctioned attempt, nor do I think that it needs to be… it is a part of young adults trying to use or find their voice.”

      Casperson was asked about Southeast fans, not only in Juneau or Ketchikan, becoming aggressive in basketball settings.

      “I think we have tremendous students,” she said. “And I think anyone who has lived knows that really good people can make poor choices in group settings. Very quickly the filters and your, sort of, core values can get kind of messy when things around you are happening with a lot of emotion. For the games we have had in town I have seen nothing that makes me concerned for our JDHS students and I appreciate that they are constantly seeking dialogue with me so we can make sure we have some litmus tests for what is positively going to be reflecting on us and what could possibly go wrong.”

      Ketchikan Kings boys basketball coach Eric Stockhausen said the Ketchikan and Metlakatla boys players have spoken with each other and have no ill will toward each other.

      “Hysteria based on less than a full truthful understanding of the situation has never done anyone good in all of history,” Stockhausen said. He noted that social media outbursts have gone so far as to threaten Kayhi students. “And I believe if I leave it at that I am not insulting Metlakatla, I’m not insulting our kids, I’m not insulting their kids, but that’s hysteria. It’s an over-reaction to an over-reaction.” 

      Stockhausen noted his players have reached out to the Metlakatla players and they are writing their own opinion.  

      Stockhausen also noted that the pain stemming from the game is real and should never be minimized or discounted.

      In an email response Feb. 11, acting superintendent Melissa Johnson said, “The District is taking great care to ensure it has gathered and carefully reviewed all relevant information prior to taking any actions or making further statements.”

      JDHS boys basketball coach Robert Casperson has experienced Region V tournaments as a youth spectator, player and now as a coach for over 30 years and said the event has served as a unifying force for the region for decades.

      “I do not believe anyone involved in this process wants any participant or spectator to have a negative experience at a region event due to something similar to what happened at the game between Metlakatla and Ketchikan,” coach Casperson said. “I always appreciate when young people take a stand for what they believe in and after the recent events at the game in question, it would seem that they have some valid concerns addressed in their petition. At the very least I believe their concerns warrant a conversation and assurances on how things will be handled if, heaven forbid, there was another similar situation during the region tournament, no matter the location.”

      Alaska School Activities Association Executive Director Billy Strickland said he has contacted the superintendents of each the KGBSD and Annette Island School District.

      “I believe they are working together to figure out what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future,” Strickland said. “And I have a lot of confidence in those superintendents. Both of them are Alaska Natives from the area and have a sense of the history and so forth. I don’t think it is going to be something that is not addressed. I think they’re trying to review their policies and what is allowed per se, more importantly in how it could possibly be perceived even if there were no ill intent.”

      Strickland, who taught in the Lower Kuskokwim School District for 25 years before taking his present position at ASAA, said it was an opportunity “for all of our schools to really look at the issue of racism and how things that could seem somewhat innocent, so forth, could really be harmful to others and how they are perceiving it.”

      Strickland also said it was an opportunity for ASAA to review its own policies.

      “We are going to review our systems in place,” Strickland said. “Because we would want some student or coach or spectator that felt like something was amiss to know how they don’t just have to sit there and suffer. That there are ways to notify people, but maybe not in the manner that this one was done…"

      KINY has reached out to ASAA Region V President Jaime Cabral and Region V ASAA Representative Troy Thain, Kayhi girls coach Kelly Smith and the AISD superintendents's office and will publish any statements when received.

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