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Schools had to accept penalties or miss playoffs

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South Central's Jemere Artis, left, is chased down by D.H. Conley's Nyck Brown during their game on Nov. 1, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Jake Keator
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, December 1, 2018

State high school athletic officials gave South Central and D.H. Conley a choice after a fight broke out after a football game on Nov. 1: Miss the state playoffs altogether or accept sanctions that included player suspensions, a ban of individual Conley students and a ban of South Central’s entire student body from their first playoff games.

The last sanction, announced to South Central students a few days before their Nov. 23 game, struck many students and parents as unfair. Pitt County Schools Public Information Director Jennifer Johnson said this week that school officials believed accepting the sanction was better than the alternative offered the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. 

“The NCHSAA indicated that we would likely be banned from the playoffs altogether,” Johnson wrote in an email response to The Daily Reflector this week. “From our understanding, the NCHSAA inquired about our investigations, conducted their own investigation and reviewed video. The district and schools complied with the investigation and Mr. (Ron) Butler, our athletics coordinator, spoke on behalf of our teams prior to the ruling. The NCHSAA communicated their ruling through communications to both schools on Nov. 6.”

The punishments were handed down following a fight between the rival teams following the game that decided the 3-A/4-A Eastern Carolina Conference championship at Conley, which the Falcons won. The fight broke out after a South Central flag was placed into the Conley turf, leading to punches between students and players and shouting between the coaches.

“Pitt County Schools was contacted by phone by the NCHSAA the morning after the final conference football game between South Central High School and D.H. Conley,” Johnson wrote. “We were not told who reported the incident, but reports to the NCHSAA can come from a variety of sources.”

The athletic association told Conley administrators that Conley students who came onto the playing field after the conclusion of the contest created “an unwholesome athletic environment” and were suspended from playoff contest hosted by Conley on Nov. 16.

South Central also received the Nov. 6 notification, stating, “The student body as a whole is also penalized for coming onto the playing field after the conclusion of the contest creating an unwholesome athletic environment. Based on NCHSAA Handbook Rule 2.4.1 (d-3), all members of the South Central High School student body are suspended from the first NCHSAA playoff contest hosted by South Central ...”

The Falcons lost that game, 33-32, to South View, capping off an 11-win season. Despite the ban, parents and other fans packed the stands keeping the Falcons game atmosphere rowdy.

“We weren’t worried about anything going on behind us, we were just worried about what was going on on the field,” Falcons head coach Andy Tew told the media postgame. “Those little things aren’t going to affect them, they just want to play football.”

South Central senior class president Ashleigh Wilson feels the punishment against the student body did not fit the crime.

“The players and students who were involved were punished, so we felt that it was an extra punishment,” Wilson said. “Not everyone who attends South Central went to that game.”

Wilson added she continues to believe the sanctions were unjust. She and other South Central students contacted NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker after learning of the punishment. 

“When we called the commissioner, she told us it was bad judgement (to rush the field),” Wilson said. “I asked her if there was a rule against rushing the field. She told us there was not one. We felt it was unfair to punish us like this when other schools have done the exact same thing and received no punishment.”

She referenced a game at South Central last year when Conley fans rushed the field are were not sanctioned. She said that officials should allow students onto the field or ban them altogether and apply punishments evenly.

Johnson said the incident last year did not result in an incident that required an NCHSAA investigation.

“However, this and other incidents involving fans coming onto the field have caused PCS to examine who is allowed access to our fields and courts. There are many items to consider such as past traditions of schools as well as the normal celebrations of fans, parents and players that many have enjoyed in the past. However, safety is a bigger concern. Just as we are taking further safety precautions in our school buildings, we are now addressing them on athletic fields, too.

She said school officials did not protest the ruling even though they recognized barring students, including cheerleaders and marching band members, would be upsetting.

“We did not protest because we were spared the more severe punishment of teams (and subsequently cheerleaders, band members, parents, community members and fans), being eliminated from participating in the playoffs altogether,” Johnson said.

Parents, students and fans informed the school system of their displeasure with the ruling. 

“The schools and the district answered questions as they received them explaining the NCHSAA rulings,” Johnson wrote. “There were many hard conversations and good conversations with those who inquired at the school and district level throughout this whole process. This was a tough situation for all involved, and we believe it was handled appropriately at each step.”

CORRECTION

Previous stories incorrectly reported which organization issued sanctions against South Central and D.H. Conley. The N.C. High School Athletic Association handed down the penalties, not Pitt County Schools. The sanction barring South Central’s student body was not an “additional” sanction, as reported on Nov. 21, however the penalty was not included in a Nov. 6 release to the media that spelled out other penalties.

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