Anger at Coach Fuels Racial Divide in Rural Colorado
LA JARA, Colo. — The photograph, of four popular high school students standing side by side, each clutching a gun in one hand and giving a stiff-armed Nazi salute with the other, terrified many people in La Jara and the surrounding poor farming communities of the San Luis Valley. Its discovery further intensified a bitter racial divide between supporters of a longtime coach, who is black, and a largely white group of students and their parents.
What began as a dispute over playing time on the football field has, in recent months, led to the closing of the school, Centauri High, for a day, the postponement of the prom and a series of emotional community meetings. Tensions between opposing factions have grown so pronounced that some people fear they are tearing apart a remote region in southern Colorado near the New Mexico border that is more diverse than many in the state.
Both sides agree that the problems at Centauri emerged long before the photo of the seniors, Trey Jackson, Dylan Valerio, Cole Smith and Kyle Martin, surfaced on the Internet in May.
All four were part of a group that in the fall of 2005 clashed with the veteran coach, Larry Joe Hunt, one of only a handful of African-Americans who live in Alamosa, near La Jara, where white and Hispanic residents predominate.
The boys, all members of the varsity football squad, were upset by what they felt was a lack of playing time and by what they called offensive language in hip-hop songs that Mr. Hunt, known for his intensity, played before games, said Cas Garcia, a lawyer representing the family of Trey Jackson. The boys, their parents and some other team members took their complaints to local school district officials but felt they were ignored, Mr. Garcia said.
This year, the dispute turned ugly when, according to Mr. Hunt’s son, Colby, 17, the players and their friends, who are white and Hispanic, began to insult Colby and other students who support the coach. Once, Colby recalled, they discussed, just loudly enough for him to hear, forming a club called the Lynch Mob or the Klan.
Ra Vernon, the mother of a Centauri student, said the players called her 15-year-old son, who is white and a friend of Colby’s, a racial epithet, and asked him, “Where’s the black boy at?”
“I was completely taken aback that in 2007, kids would still say or feel these things,” Ms. Vernon said. “It all just kept getting worse.”
Fearful for her son’s safety, Ms. Vernon pulled him out of Centauri last month before the school year was over.
Mr. Hunt filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying he had told school officials about many incidents he considered racially motivated.
Last year, the boys, some of whom also played basketball for Mr. Hunt, formed a breakaway team, the Running Rebels, and showed up wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag at a basketball camp the Centauri team was attending.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think things like this could still happen in this part of Colorado,” said Jane Corn of the Colorado Education Association, which is representing Mr. Hunt.
A school board member, Garth Crowther, told the education association that during a football game, Trey Jackson’s father, Vaughn, a local family physician, was upset over his son’s playing time and remarked, “I’m going to paint my boy black.” Dr. Jackson also used an obscene racial epithet to describe the type of person who could play on the team, Mr. Crowther said.
“I was shocked. But that’s what I heard,” said Mr. Crowther, who added that his daughter faced severe harassment at school because of her friendship with Mr. Hunt’s daughter, Lydia, 14.
Mr. Garcia said that he had no knowledge of Dr. Jackson’s comments but that the harassment claims against the boys had not been proven.
The intent of the Confederate flag shirts was misunderstood, Mr. Garcia said.
“The boys were not looking at it as a racial symbol,” he said. “They were rebelling against what they perceived to be unfair coaching practices. They didn’t understand that it would be viewed as hurtful or mean-spirited.”
Shortly after Easter break, someone raised the Confederate flag over Centauri High School, and some students began painting the flag on their cars, a practice that school officials ordered stopped.
Word of the Internet photo swept through the valley in May, prompting the North Conejos School District to contact local and state law enforcement authorities, close Centauri High for a day and postpone the prom. A local newspaper, The Valley Courier, ran the picture and an accompanying letter from more than 100 area residents, urging people not to sit silently “as racial intimidation rages across the community.”
Mr. Garcia called the photo “a big mistake” that was not racially motivated and for which the boys have publicly apologized. “It was a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Everyone involved in this has been devastated. Everyone has suffered.”
“I’ve known the Jacksons for years,” Mr. Garcia added. “If they were racist, I wouldn’t be representing them.”
By the end of the school year, many of Centauri High’s 340 students and their parents had grown frustrated with the administration’s response. Students convened an assembly in protest, and parents chastised school officials at a series of meetings.
“Because these problems have been neglected for so long, they’ve been allowed to escalate to a place of hysteria,” said Kathleen Chavez, an English teacher, who says the school has long ignored harassment of minority students.
The assistant school superintendent, Robert Alejo, defended the district’s decision not to punish the boys, all of whom were permitted to graduate with their classmates. He said district officials, after conferring with lawyers and law enforcement officials, could not discipline anyone because nothing but the Nazi salute picture, which did not involve school property, could be proven. The school district is awaiting a final report by a private investigator who was also hired to look into the accusations of racial harassment.
“There were rumors, innuendo, but nothing tangible was ever handed to my office,” Mr. Alejo said.
The school board president, LeRoy Salazar, who is a brother of Senator Ken Salazar and Representative John Salazar, both Democrats, agreed with Mr. Alejo, but said school officials should have moved more swiftly.
“In retrospect, we should have had Internet picture policies in place, community forums, student forums, diversity training, to make it really clear that any sort of harassment or intimidation or hate will not be tolerated in our community,” said LeRoy Salazar, who is a Centauri graduate along with his brothers.
Mr. Hunt met recently with the families of some boys with whom he had clashed, and a few apologized, Ms. Corn said.
Mr. Hunt said he would not comment until his complaint with the federal employment commission had been resolved, but his wife, Christine Hettinger-Hunt, who is white, said she found it “unbelievable that people haven’t fully understood how hateful and hurtful all of these actions have been.”
Article by DAN FROSCH