Rootstown Board of Education President Amanda Waesch speaks to Rootstown residents during a community forum at Northeast Ohio Medical University on Oct. 11. The forum, called Critical Conversations, aims to heal the community after the handling of reported racism on the high school football team compelled residents to questions the school district’s values. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Rootstown investigation left a ‘sense of helplessness,’ critics say
The Board of Education hired a private investigator to review a football controversy. Community members say they missed an opportunity.
Earlier this month, Kevin Kaut, a neuroscientist at the University of Akron, applied to fill one of two vacancies on the Rootstown Board of Education. He believed this was his chance to be part of a change in the community he felt was long overdue.
Two weeks later, he withdrew his application. Certain members of the board, he had heard, would not entertain his candidacy because of his pointed criticism of the board’s response to racism on the high school football team.
“What I was led to believe — and I have always believed this — is this: What that board really wants is someone or some people they can manipulate, or that they know will not cause trouble for them,” said Kaut, who has lived in Rootstown for nearly 30 years. “Which really means like-minded people that will just kind of step in line.”
On Monday, the school board appointed two new members to fill seats vacated in the fallout of a controversial decision to allow a white player to continue on the team after the head coach kicked him off, despite calling his teammates the N-word. Head Coach Troy Spiker and an assistant coach subsequently resigned in protest.
Also Monday, a private investigator the board hired to review the disciplinary process, and racism in the football program in general, released the results of that investigation.
Investigator Tim Dimoff did not find evidence of ongoing racism on the football team, but he did not interview any Black players or parents. The report omits the wave of community testimony about broader racism that came to light in the wake of the controversy, which Dimoff and school leaders say was not within the scope of the inquiry.
Dimoff did, however, find that Superintendent Andrew Hawkins reversed his earlier opinion about punishing the player because of pressure from the player’s father and because board member Steven Vasbinder went out of his way, and beyond his authority, to lobby school officials against the decision. Vasbinder recognized his mistake and resigned, Dimoff wrote.
Reactions from the community ranged from apathy to despair, with some commenting on social media that they are tired of talking about race. But many others expressed anger with district leaders, calling the report a distraction and criticizing its narrow scope. (The board did not seek public input about the investigation before commissioning it, and they have declined to reveal the estimated or actual cost.)
“It is so disheartening to my family, to us as minorities in the community,” said Charles Harris, a former high school football coach at Rootstown. “They had numerous former students and residents, white and Black, throughout the last few board meetings that stood up and gave their account of their experiences with Andrew Hawkins, with the school board, with the school system, how the system has handled racism and bullying, and they’ve completely denied it again, like they’ve always done.”
Waiting for change
The community’s lack of trust in school leadership, Kaut said, stems from a widespread belief that a small group of people in positions of power have worked to preserve old hierarchies and ideas, including on matters of racism and bullying.
“Sometimes things, they reach a fever pitch,” he said. “They become intense for a moment, or for a period of time, and then it just kind of fades away. And I think that we have to guard against that as a community. Fading away in this situation is merely another way of sweeping things under the rug.”
When Kaut moved to Rootstown, his children enthusiastically participated in the community, and he and his wife got involved and made friends. As educators (his wife teaches in another district), they were eager to engage with the local schools. But someone with deep family history in Rootstown approached him one day.
“He said, ‘One of the things you’re going to learn is there is a disease in Rootstown. … The disease is mediocrity,’” Kaut said. “And what he was really trying to indicate to me in the conversation was you might try to change a lot of things, and you might have ideas and things you’d like to see happen, but there are going to be limits to what you’ll ever be able to accomplish.”
When a board member resigns, the remaining board members appoint someone to fill the position. Vasbinder and former board member Scott Krieger both resigned at the Sept. 21 board meeting. (Krieger’s part in the controversy, if any, has not been disclosed.)
After Kaut applied last month for a board position, friends told him that the board would “in no way seriously consider my application for this position,” according to an email he sent to district leaders. True or not, he said it encouraged him to withdraw his application. He also said he realized his reputation as a critic could be harmful to the board.
He ended the letter on a cautionary note: “Many individuals who have long supported these schools are simply losing interest and faith. … Recent opposition to the school levy serves as another notice to the board of education and the school administration that change is needed.”
Just the beginning
The report did not mention community comments given during board meetings because those comments did not all describe specific incidents and many fell outside the investigation’s scope, said Board President Amanda Waesch.
“This was done in conjunction with our legal counsel,” she said. “I did not direct the investigation. This was done by our legal counsel and at the discretion of the investigator. This is their area of expertise, not mine.”
The board’s legal counsel hired SACS Consulting and Investigative Services. As the firm’s president and CEO, Dimoff said he confirmed school officials’ accounts by cross referencing them and using his training in interpreting body language. He said he felt everyone was honest, but he didn’t speak to students because doing so poses legal issues.
“My investigation was not to focus on the school, the day to day interactions of say, students, you know, it was more focused on the athletic program,” he said.
While the investigation maintained a narrow scope and only spoke to school officials, Waesch said the community committee, in partnership with the Portage County NAACP, seeks to address broader issues. She emphasized that the committee functions as a framework for a larger community movement, and developing that movement will take time.
“We’re not going to be able to flip a switch overnight,” she said. “This is a process, and I can personally say for myself that I’m committed to the process.”
Despite the investigation’s findings, Hawkins acknowledged that his district is not immune to racism.
“I don’t think any school district can say they don’t have any issues,” he said. “We all have some degree of them.”
He said he’s deeply saddened by how this whole situation has affected students and community members alike, but he’s optimistic about Rootstown’s future.
‘Now we’re going to look towards them?’
In the first community conversation with the NAACP earlier this month, Waesch said, “We’re in listening and learning mode.”
Many people in Rootstown feel the investigative report undermines the sincerity of that claim by hearing only the perspectives of the white school leaders who created the problem to begin with.
Harris, the former football coach, said the focus of the report was misplaced: Of course one incident of racism does not constitute an “ongoing racism problem within the football program,” as the investigation sought to determine. By answering questions no one asked about the athletic program rather than in the school district and broader community, accepting administrators’ testimonies at face value and declining to interview key witnesses, the report shifted the focus away from creating a school district that does not tolerate bullying or racism.
Harris said his son, who graduated from the high school in 2020, often saw the N-word written in the men’s restroom, and students reported it to the principal on a near-monthly basis. And the district let his family down when his daughter was bullied in junior high; they held one meeting, but the issue went unresolved, he said.
“Now we’re going to look towards them to help us figure out how to move past this?” Harris said. “I don’t understand that, you know? I don’t feel like those are the people that should be making decisions and that those are the people that should be trying to guide us through this. They were the ones that made this decision. It was such a terrible decision, and it was an easy decision. It was an easy decision.”
Kailey McMullen graduated from Rootstown High School in 2011 and shared a similar perspective on the investigation.
“It is insane to say that there is no racism,” she told The Portager in an email. “What a slap in the face to every student, parent and community member that was brave enough to share their experiences. The board needs to take a lesson in anti-racism. They need to believe the experiences of others.”
Where to go from here
But McMullen said she won’t sit back and let this fade away.
“This is not an issue that will be brushed under the rug,” she wrote. “Our world is changing, and it’s time that this district gets on board, or they get out of the way.”
Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson emphasized the community’s need to work with the board to move forward, but she said the report “definitely gives you a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.” She said community members who want to see change need to engage.
“If you really feel that there are critical issues in your community, you got to be willing to come out, and you got to be willing to talk,” she said. “You got to be willing to roll up your sleeves. But if we don’t see that, then to me, we’re just as guilty if we’re not out there trying to create the change that we want to see in the world or in our community.”
Hayes-Nelson said preparing students for a diverse world begins in elementary school. Involving the district’s senior leadership is essential, but it’s not enough, and schools in majority-white areas like Rootstown disserve students if they do not provide them exposure to the diversity present in the global workforce. The school can do that, she said, by stocking its libraries with books on diverse topics, and teachers can do the same by integrating such books into their classes.
The report recommended the district implement an anonymous tip line to encourage students to report racism and bullying, an idea both district leadership and community members have supported. It further suggested the district administration, athletic department and Board of Education collaborate to create a more comprehensive disciplinary procedure and strengthen communication across departments.
Beyond disciplinary procedure, Harris said the school needs to write policies about racism into its disciplinary code. The school doesn’t emphasize consequences for overt racism enough, he said. Just like how the school’s code lays out punishments for drug use or fighting, it needs to make students aware that the district will not tolerate racism.
“I just hope that, moving forward, they have the right people within the administration that are trying to help out the children that are within the school system,” Harris said. “That’s what my hope is because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about anything else. It’s all about the kids, and are the kids being taken care of? That’s a huge issue. That’s every parent’s nightmare is to not feel that their kids are being treated fairly. Whether it’s through bullying, whether it’s through racial injustice, you know, maybe they got red hair. I mean, anything. You just hope that your kids are being taken care of.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Kailey McMullen’s last name.