Community members gather in Rootstown High School’s cafeteria for a special Board of Education meeting on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Michael Indriolo/The Portager)
Rootstown board member pressured the superintendent to reinstate football player
High school principal: ‘I felt in a position of, this person controls my livelihood’
At the urging of at least one school board member, Rootstown Superintendent Andrew Hawkins prevented disciplinary action against a football player who hurled racial slurs against teammates in violation of team rules, leading two coaches to resign and shattering community trust in school leadership.
At an emotional Board of Education meeting in the high school cafeteria, a parade of angry community members criticized the administration’s failure to create a safe environment for students. Several called for Hawkins and some board members to resign.
Head coach Troy Spiker removed the player from the team the Thursday before their Sept. 4 game against Garfield. In a series of conversations that Thursday, Hawkins and Athletic Director Keith Waesch agreed with Spiker’s disciplinary action, said High School Principal James Conley, who was present in some of those meetings. Hawkins said he consulted Conley, Waesch, board member Steven Vasbinder and board Vice President Tom Siciliano.
Soon afterward, however, at least one member of the Board of Education began working to overturn Spiker’s decision, Conley said.
During that Friday’s game against Garfield, Vasbinder approached Conley at Robert C. Dunn Field and said Spiker should resign and that the student should be immediately reinstated on the team, Conley said.
“I felt in a position of, this person controls my livelihood,” Conley said. “I don’t know how to respond even if I disagree or agree.”
Vasbinder told Conley he had lost faith in Spiker, citing a rumor that Spiker had “segregated” the students during practice. In fact, Spiker had only held a meeting with the team’s four Black players in which he reassured them he would not tolerate racism from other teammates, said Sparky Birkett, the father of two of the Black students.
At Monday’s meeting, Vasbinder admitted to calling for Spiker’s resignation Sept. 4 and said he asked for the student’s reinstatement because he “felt like there’s no way the football team holds together unless we bring all them boys in there and they learn how to cooperate, how to be a team.” He thought the only way to teach the student a lesson was to keep him on the team.
But the decision to overturn the punishment set off a chaotic week for Rootstown Local Schools, with parents openly questioning the administration’s values at a time of heightened awareness about the challenges of racism and bullying in schools. They said the district’s message is that it will tolerate racism.
“I don’t know what to tell my son,” said Julie Siglow, the mother of a football player. “We’re gonna leave here tonight. What are our boys told?”
Board President Amanda Waesch recommended the board hire a private, third-party investigator to review the entire timeline of events from the start of football season to Spiker’s resignation. The board approved the proposal and appointed Middle School Principal Rob Campbell to serve as liaison between the investigator and the district.
The board also vowed to create a diversity awareness committee, which may include Portage County NAACP Publicity Chair Frank Hairston, along with students, community leaders and members of the board.
The controversy stems from three incidents during summer and fall football practices. During an intrasquad scrimmage, a white player on the team referred to two of his Black teammates by the n-word, Birkett said, but coaches didn’t take action because none of them heard it. The following week, the player scuffled with Birkett’s son, used the n-word again and both were suspended. The white player denied using the slur.
The player was warned his next offense would warrant harsher consequences, Conley said, so when the player demeaned the national origin of another white player’s last name, Spiker banned him from the football team.
According to Conley, one of the Black students targeted by the derogatory comments described what happened in a text message to Spiker, who then sent screenshots of the message to Keith Waesch, the athletic director, on Wednesday, Sept. 2.
During a meeting the next morning, Keith Waesch, Hawkins and Conley agreed the student who made the comment should be removed from the team. Conley, Keith Waesch and Spiker then met with the student to inform him of the decision. The student turned in his football equipment, and Spiker called one of his parents to let them know, Conley said.
The parent demanded a meeting and immediately drove to the school. Spiker was at practice, so the parent spoke with Conley and Keith Waesch, who both said they stood by their decision.
By Monday, however, the player was back on the team.
The situation broke into the open when Spiker announced his resignation from what he called his “dream job” last Wednesday. Students and community members alike described the former coach’s integrity, comparing him to football coaches from movies and punctuating social media posts with #IStandWithSpiker. Those sentiments only intensified over the weekend leading up to the Board of Education’s special meeting Monday night, where the board unanimously accepted both Spiker’s and Assistant Coach Tom Wilson’s resignations.
“They lost two of the best coaches ever on that team,” said Charles Harris, former Rootstown high school football coach and friend of both Spiker and Wilson.
Harris said Spiker called him seeking “advice on a perspective that he’s completely unaware of: being a Black man.”
Spiker spoke to him as the situation unfolded, telling Harris that he begrudgingly accepted Hawkins’ order to reinstate the student, saying he would simply bench him for the season. He told Harris that Hawkins replied, “If he’s good enough, he’ll play.”
Spiker “removed himself from the situation because you guys failed him, you failed the system and, not only did you fail those two, you failed all the kids within this community,” Harris said. “Any kid that’s a minority, you guys failed them. Totally failed them.”
The room erupted with applause and some pounded on tables.
“As the board of education … you ultimately have a responsibility to root for our kids, and you have a responsibility to root out the problems, and if those problems are in the mirror, then you must step aside and resign,” said Rootstown resident Kevin Kaut.
Kaut said he made a commitment to try to better Rootstown when he first moved there, and that some members of the board have shirked their responsibilities to affect positive change by hiding behind “what some refer to as the ‘old boys network’ or the ‘old guard.’”
“If we teach our children to recite the hallowed words of Martin Luther King Jr., if we expect our kids to stand in allegiance for this country that we believe in and we expect equality across the board, then we have got to expect that from the decision makers at our school board level,” he said.
Responding to criticism from the parents of football players, Hawkins said the coaches would talk about the situation with the team Tuesday.
“The people that you said are gonna address our kids tomorrow morning, I have no trust in them,” said Caren Karp, the mother of a student who has played Rootstown football since kindergarten. “I do not want them addressing my son. They’ve done nothing but confuse my son.”
She taught her son to never quit, but she said that’s exactly what the team wants to do now.
Some demanded an end to long-standing systemic racism and bullying in the community.
Rootstown resident Beth Cox said her daughter, a Black student, told her she hopes the pandemic worsens so she won’t have to go back to a school where she doesn’t feel welcome. Cox graduated from Rootstown High School about 30 years ago and said the town’s tenor toward racism hasn’t improved since then. After spending decades in Rootstown, she’s considering selling her house and leaving so her daughter doesn’t have to grow up inundated with racism.
“It’s really, really, really irresponsible of somebody on this board to let a kid who’s 16 be afraid to come to school because she’s Black,” she said. “It’s not OK.”
Shaye Birkett, the sister of two Black Rootstown football players, choked back tears when she approached the microphone.
“You saw my brother come off that field in tears because he doesn’t feel comfortable playing on a field with people that hate him,” she said. “You’re failing all your students of color. What are they supposed to think when you’re not behind them?”