Covington Catholic high schoolers spark controversy, a more complicated picture emerges

    FILE-In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image made from video provided by the Survival Media Agency, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

    UPDATE, Wednesday 10:00 a.m.: Covington Catholic High School reopened Wednesday with extra security precautions.


    UPDATE, Tuesday: Covington Catholic High School will be closed indefinitely due to "threats of violence and the possibility of large crowds,"according to a joint statement from the Diocese of Covington and the school that was released Tuesday afternoon. The statement says a third-party investigation into the incident is planned this week.


    WASHINGTON (SBG) - A short video of a group of Trump supporting Kentucky high school students appearing to confront a Native American veteran Friday sparked fury around the country and the world.

    However, new information including additional footage has cast doubt on the initial reports of what occurred. The students involved have denied the accusations against them, asserting they were trying to ease tensions and defuse the situation.

    In the viral video, a Native American man beating a drum and chanting makes his way through a large group of Covington Catholic high school students who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington after they participated in the March for Life, an annual protest against legalized abortion. The man, who has since identified himself as veteran and activist Nathan Phillips, approaches one of the many teen boys in the crowd wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.

    Phillips chants and beats his drum extremely close to the boy’s face, who quietly smiles and does not move.

    Phillips, who was attending the coinciding Indigenous Peoples March, said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press that the boys were behaving in a threatening manner after being heckled by some black nationalist protesters.

    “The crowd of students, some of whom wore MAGA caps, mocked Native Americans while chanting 'Build the Wall' and using derogatory language, he told the Detroit Free Press. Phillips said "It was ugly, what these kids were involved in. It was racism. It was hatred. It was scary."

    The students' actions were widely condemned as threatening and hateful, with many stating the teen boy at the center of the controversy looked like he was sneering and blocking the way of the veteran and tribal leader.

    MeToo activist Alyssa Milano also weighed in, stating that the boys' participation in the March for Life was indication enough of their alleged bigotry.

    In a joint statement released Saturday, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologized for the students’ behavior and added that “the matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.” In an op-ed released the same day, the mayor of Covington said the incident did not "represent the core beliefs and values of this city."

    However, a nearly two-hour video that gained attention Sunday suggests the incident was far more complex. The students, who were gathering in large numbers at the memorial awaiting to board buses back home, were called “crackers,” “incest children” and “racist” for wearing MAGA hats by demonstrators.

    Warning: Language in this video my be disturbing to some viewers.

    Warning: Language in this video my be disturbing to some viewers.

    In a statement released to local Cincinnati, Ohio station WKRC, a student who claimed he was present at the incident said “we did not partake in any physical or verbal abuse, did not chant ‘build the wall” or mock or anything of the like, and did not seek to incite violence." CNN reported that the chants attributed to the students, including "Trump 2020" and "Build the wall," were not audible in the known footage.

    Amid wide speculation of the unconfirmed identity of the teen featured so prominently in the initial clip, Andrew Hodge said his family was harassed after Twitter users speculated that it was his brother Michael.

    On Sunday, Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann publicly identified himself as the student approached by Phillips. He said the students were doing “school spirit chants” to drown out the name calling he said they received from the African-American protesters. In a Facebook video, activist Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan denied that his group sparked the incident. Sandmann expressed dismay that he has been receiving death threats for something he said he did not do.

    "I was not intentionally making faces at the protestor. I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation," Sandmann said in his statement, similarly asserting that he did not hear any of his fellow students chant ‘build the wall’ or “anything hateful or racist at any time.”

    Congressman Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who represents the district where Covington Catholic High School is located, said that he thinks the incident was widely misinterpreted and misreported. Twitter suspended an account largely responsible for spreading the initial viral video online Monday afternoon, according to CNN.

    Stating that there is "more to this story than the original video captured," the March for Life Sunday retracted its initial statement chastising the students.

    President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy in light of new reports that called into question the initial reaction to the incident.

    Covington Catholic High School announced Tuesday they were closed over safety concerns, according to WKRC. Authorities are investigating threats against Covington Catholic High School.

    Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, tweeted Tuesday that he is saddened by the "ongoing drama surrounding the now infamous video."

    The American Indian Movement Chapter of Indiana and Kentucky held a gathering outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington advocating for Native Americans Tuesday, joined by others who expressed support for Covington Catholic High School.

    Guy Jones, left, and a supporter of President Donald Trump named Don embrace during a gathering of Native American supporters in front of the Catholic Diocese of Covington in Covington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. Jones organized Tuesday's gathering. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

    Requests for additional comment from Covington Catholic High School and the Diocese of Covington representatives have not yet been answered, but they have released a new statement since this article was published. The diocese's website, where the joint statement was published, was down as of Tuesday morning but the press release replaced the original main page in the afternoon.

    "This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people. It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any are appropriate," reads the statement. "We pay that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer."

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