Amid Calls for Reconciliation, Covington Catholic, Diocese Promise Investigation Into Viral Video Controversy

Covington Catholic High School and the Covington Diocese will tap a third-party investigator to probe the Jan. 18 incident in Washington, D.C.

Jan 22, 2019 at 5:48 pm
Indigenous activist Nathan Phillips in the middle of a crowd of students from Covington Catholic High School - Autumn Rain/Instagram
Autumn Rain/Instagram
Indigenous activist Nathan Phillips in the middle of a crowd of students from Covington Catholic High School

Covington Catholic High School and the Covington Diocese will tap a third-party investigator to probe the Jan. 18 incident in Washington, D.C., which led to a series of viral videos and national outrage across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, the family of one student involved in the incident has hired a well-known libel attorney.

In the initial videos, young men dance, jump around and appear to do do the tomahawk chop around a small group of indigenous people who are drumming and singing. Some in the group wear Covington Catholic sweatshirts and other school attire. Longer videos provided more context — including showing taunts from a third group toward the students and that the indigenous marchers approached the group that included Covington Catholic students — and angry reactions supporting one side or the other have seesawed across the internet in the days since.

On Saturday, the school and the Diocese put out a statement "condemning" the actions of the students, apologizing to the indigenous marchers and promising punishment —up to and including expulsion — for those involved. But after the longer videos came to light, some supporters of the students involved called for an apology from the school and Diocese.

That apology came in a Jan. 24 address at the school from Diocese Bishop Roger Foys, according to Diocese paper The Messenger.

"“This is a no-win situation," Foys said at his address. "We are not going to win. No matter what we say, one way or another, there are going to be people who are going to argue about it, people who will try to get into people’s heads and say, ‘This is what he meant. This is what they meant when they were doing this and doing that.’ The best we can do is, first of all, to find out the truth, to find out what really went on, what really happened. So we do have investigators who are here today, a third-party who are not associated with our diocese, not associated with me or with the school, who are working on this investigation to find out what happened."

In a letter to Covington Catholic parents the next day, Foys said he was sorry for the initial statements the Diocese made.

"We apologize to anyone who has been offended in any way by either of our statements which were made with good will based on the information we had," Foys wrote. "We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely, and we take full responsibility for it. I especially apologize to Nicholas Sandmann and his family as well as to all CovCath families who have felt abandoned during this ordeal."

 The controversy played out at lightning speed. About 250 Covington Catholic students were in Washington for the annual March for Life. On the afternoon of Jan. 18, a large contingent of that group was near the Lincoln Memorial when a contentious exchange with four men representing a group called the Black Hebrew Israelites began. Members of BHI used homophobic and racial slurs and taunted the teens, who responded with school cheers, including one in which a teen took his shirt off and danced.

Nearby, a group who had been attending a permitted event at the memorial, the Indigenous Peoples March, was watching. That group had also endured taunts from BHI. Nathan Phillips, an elder with the indigenous group, says he felt called to intervene between the young men and BHI. He and others slowly walked, singing and drumming, into the space between the groups. As he got closer to the students, some of them laughed and others danced or sang along. Others made motions that look like the so-called "tomahawk chop."

Phillips continued to beat his drum and sing as he moved into the crowd of young men, which swelled around him. Covington Catholic junior Sandmann is pictured in the viral videos staring straight ahead and motionless at Phillips,

"It was getting ugly, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got to find myself an exit out of this situation and finish my song at the Lincoln Memorial,’" Phillips said to The Washington Post. “I started going that way, and that guy in the hat stood in my way and we were at an impasse. He just blocked my way and wouldn’t allow me to retreat.”

Sandmann, however, said that the elder's action confused him and felt aggressive, and that he was not attempting to block Phillips. After retaining Louisville-based public relations firm RunSwitch PR, Sandmann put out a lengthy statement with his side of the story. Sandmann also appeared on the TODAY show.

"I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation," he said in the statement. "I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand."

Brief words, including "go back to Europe," were exchanged between another indigenous marcher and a young man before Sandmann and another indigenous marcher told the two to stand down. Eventually, the crowd dispersed.

Some have questioned Phillips' intentions, while others say he was attempting to make peace.

"Nathan Phillips claims he was trying to "defuse" a situation," Blue Ash City Councilman Jeff Capell tweeted Jan. 21. "Does anyone 'defuse' a situation by walking up and banging a drum within inches of someone's face, while your wingman tells kids to "go back to Europe"? That's instigating, not defusing."

One Covington Catholic parent has said the story has been "blown way out of proportion."

"The guy (Phillips) deserved a lot of respect, and from what I understand, he was walking through the crowd to deescalate the situation because the other guys started it," Covington Catholic parent Bill Gerdes told River City News. "(Phillips) didn't do anything. (Covington Catholic students) did not say anything to this guy."

Indigenous marchers say the students were disrespectful, however. The tomahawk chop, for example, is considered by many indigenous people to be highly offensive.

click to enlarge Covington Catholic High School - Tony Frank
Tony Frank
Covington Catholic High School

Covington Catholic and the Diocese say they have reached no conclusions about the incident yet. Both the school and the Diocese have reported threats, which Kentucky authorities are investigating. The school was closed Jan. 22, with officials citing safety concerns.

"Concerning the incident in Washington, D.C., between Covington Catholic students, Elder Nathan Phillips and Black Hebrew Israelites the independent, third-party investigation is planned to begin this week," their joint statement reads. "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.

"We pray 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. We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete."

Meanwhile, a local group representing members of the indigenous community is seeking to meet with the Diocese.

"In the spirit of transparency we feel it is necessary to have a conversation where we are able to air our concerns and ask questions about the events that occurred in Washington DC on Friday, January18th," a statement from the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition reads. "We are asking for a seat at the table as they begin to look into resolution and lasting solutions for the lack of respect shown by their students to our elders. These events have put a national spotlight on us and because of this we deserve space to have this conversation for only then can reconciliation begin."

Dozens attended a peace vigil and call to end racism put together by the American Indian Movement of Ohio and American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky outside the Diocese today — most supporting Phillips and the other indigenous marchers, but a few supporting the students.

"Here we are, everybody's pointing fingers," organizer Guy Jones said at the vigil. " Let's stop the finger pointing. Let's stop putting blame. Let's go and come together and create a dialogue where we can begin to grow."

During an appearance on the TODAY show Jan. 23, Sandmann reiterated he felt he had done nothing wrong. But he also indicated he would like to meet with Phillips and talk.

"As far as standing there, I had every right to do so," he said during the interview. "I don't... My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips. I respect him. I'd like to talk to him. I mean, in hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing."

Even as talks about meeting and reconciliation begin, the Sandmann family is considering legal options, hiring noted libel attorney L. Lin Wood. The Atlanta-based attorney has won multi-million-dollar settlements for clients like Richard Jewel, falsely accused of the 1996 Olympic Park bombings, and Burke Ramsey, the brother of murdered six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. Burke Ramsey sued CBS after a series by the network seemed to suggest he may have killed his sister.

"Mr. Wood brings an unrivaled record of success in the courtroom, having represented such clients as the family of JonBenet Ramsey, former Rep. Gary Condit and Richard Jewell in lawsuits against the media," Sandmann family attorney Todd McMurtry wrote in a statement Jan. 24.

Phillips has been critical of Sandmann's statements, saying he should apologize for his role in the incident. He appeared on the TODAY show the day after Sandmann did.

"Even though I'm still angry, I still have forgiveness in my heart for those students," Phillips said during that segment.

A national indigenous peoples group Jan. 21 said that Phillips has offered to meet with the students at the school to have a dialogue about the contentious, if brief, confrontation that unfolded between them in Washington D.C. However, Phillips turned down another invitation by local restaurant owner Jeff Ruby to "break bread" with the students.

The Indigenous Peoples Movement announced Phillips' offer, but it's unclear if the school will accept the invitation. The group is the coalition that put together the Jan. 18 Indigenous Peoples March.

Phillips says he wants to meet with the students to "have a dialog about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures," the Indigenous Peoples Movement said in a statement Monday.

"We feel that there is a distinct lack of understanding and appreciation of Native peoples and traditions worldwide. It's time to address the indecency of culturally appropriating our ritual movements and songs for the enjoyment of non-Native peoples," Phillips said in the statement "So, let's create space for the teaching of tolerance to happen."