Official: Online remarks inflame claims of antisemitism at Staples-Cheshire football game

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Staples High School on Wednesday July 25, 2018 in Westport Conn.

Staples High School on Wednesday July 25, 2018 in Westport Conn.

Alex von Kleydorff / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — As officials continue to investigate accusations of antisemitic behavior during a football game between Staples and Cheshire high schools Friday night, they said social media comments about the incident have been “disheartening.”

After the game, which took place in Cheshire, reports surfaced on social media of antisemitic and racist comments made in the stands, the presence of a Confederate flag, and the waving of an Israeli flag.

By Sunday night, both Westport Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice and Cheshire Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey F. Solan had issued statements saying an early investigation showed the waving of the Israeli flag didn’t appear to have been motivated by antisemitism, as the students holding it were Jewish. There also was no evidence that a Confederate flag was present at the game.

On Monday, Scarice said there was “nothing to comment (on) at this point,” regarding the investigation.

Solan said, though the incident is still being investigated, “it felt like this was pretty certainly a misunderstanding.” He said several people were interviewed over the weekend, including a Staples cheerleader who contacted Cheshire officials Saturday morning to inform them she had learned the students holding the Israeli flag were Jewish.

However, Solan said, despite these latest findings, he has seen “social media posts vilifying our students.”

“It’s disheartening when you know there’s more to the story,” Solan said.

He said he and other officials have a strong interest in doing a thorough investigation.

“We have a significant Jewish population in Cheshire. They were concerned to hear about the claims (of antisemitism) as well.”

Solan pointed out that, in addition to law enforcement and education officials from Westport and Cheshire, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut has been involved in examining the incident. Steve Ginsburg, director of the ADL’s Connecticut region, also expressed concerns that social media posts have inflamed the situation.

Ginsburg said these kinds of sensitive incidents need to be investigated thoroughly, a process that isn’t helped by speculation on social media.

“(School and law enforcement officials) are trying to gather facts in a systematic way and all social media is telling people to do is ‘tell me what happened,’ ” he said. “It’s a tension that makes it much more challenging for those we have appointed or elected to handle these things.”

Facebook and similar sites can be helpful in analyzing incidents, Ginsburg said, as they allow people to present video and photographic evidence. But they aren’t infallible, he said.

“Social media is a great place for misinformation to spread,” he said.

In his statement, Solan addressed the seriousness of the accusations, and said they were being treated accordingly.

“It is deeply concerning that America is experiencing a period of elevated antisemitic acts,” he said. “The Cheshire Public Schools is deeply opposed to any expression of hate and remains committed to aggressively addressing such behavior.”

This is not the first time there have been reports of an antisemitic incident at a Connecticut high school sports game.

In 2016, a Greenwich football coach came under fire for using plays called “Hitler” and “Stalin” during a game against Trumbull High School. Ginsburg was also involved in that investigation and called it a “bad decision, but not a mean-spirited one,” and was resolved with some education.

Another incident occurred in 2018 at a lacrosse game between Staples and Fairfield Prep, when Fairfield Prep fans reportedly used antisemitic chants directed at Jewish Staples High School students.

Ginsburg said the ADL gets a couple of reports a year alleging antisemitic behavior at sporting events.

“It’s not endemic, but it happens too often,” he said. “These are often young people in heated moments who cross the line. And there should be consequences but there should also be learning.”