Camas athletics gets ‘fresh set of eyes’

Camas School District's new superintendent, athletic director want to build trust, train coaches as ‘upstanders’ in wake of 2021-22 racism allegations

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A sign points visitors toward the Camas High School junior varsity and varsity baseball fields on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas School District’s new superintendent says the district — which found itself embroiled in two investigations into racist slurs allegedly directed toward visiting student-athletes during the 2021-22 school year — will have a “fresh set of eyes” on its athletics programs going into the new school year.

“We are not going to crucify anybody, because these are kids, but we will still hold people accountable,” CSD Superintendent John Anzalone told The Post-Record this week. “We want to make sure (visiting student-athletes) feel welcome and build trust, which will take some time.”

Anzalone, who worked as a building and district administrator for the 320,000-student Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, for 16 years before starting his new role as CSD’s superintendent on July 1, came to Camas on the heels of two investigations into racially charged incidents that occurred during Camas athletic events in December 2021 and April 2022.

A coach from Portland’s Benson High School alerted CSD officials to the first incident in late 2021, and said a young person sitting in the Camas student section had “hurled racial slurs, specifically the ‘N-word'” toward members of Benson’s junior varsity girls basketball team as they came onto the court and during the game. Benson parents who attended the game also told the coach they had heard the slurs and felt “it created a very hostile environment.”

An outside investigator concluded in January 2022, that Camas students likely directed “some sort of inappropriate language” toward members of the Benson team, but added that it was “not possible to reach a definitive conclusion that (Camas students used) racial slurs.”

The Camas School Board said in January 2022, the investigation into the Benson allegations “reinforce(d) the need to emphasize sportsmanship, decorum and respect for all within our schools” and added that “racism, bullying and harassment of any kind or scope are not tolerated in our schools.”

Three months later, in April 2022, the district again found itself enmeshed in accusations that Camas students had directed racist slurs toward members of a visiting athletic team. In this case, members of the Vancouver-based Skyview High School’s junior varsity baseball team and their coach said members of Camas’ junior varsity baseball team had engaged in racist behavior directed toward a Skyview player of color.

Then-Camas Athletic Director Rory Oster and then-Camas High Principal Tom Morris later said a weeklong investigation was “not able to confirm all allegations,” but that Camas leaders “do know (Camas student-athletes) engaged in racist behavior” during the April 20 junior varsity baseball game against Skyview and that “their actions and the inaction of the athletes who witnessed these acts clearly illustrate that a problem exists in our team.”

Parents said Camas School District allowed local students ‘to be vilified’

After the district canceled the remainder of Camas’ junior varsity baseball games, several Camas parents showed up at the Camas School Board’s May 23 meeting to rail against the district’s handling of the Benson and Skyview allegations and alleging that district officials had allowed Camas students to “be vilified.”

“This is not who they are. This is not who their families are. This is not who we are at all,” Kendall Thiemann, a former football coach and the parent of two Camas High graduates, told the school board on May 23. “The narrative that’s been put out … is not factual. We want the facts … but (you) have let Skyview control the narrative and they’ve thrown our kids under the bus.”

Another parent, Molly Sheffield, whose son was then a freshman on the Camas junior varsity baseball team, told board members during the May 23 meeting that her son had started his freshman year with “great expectations and optimism” but that the district’s handling of the Skyview allegations and the resulting cancellation of junior varsity baseball games had changed that.

“Now his and other players’ mental health has taken a dive,” Sheffield said, accusing the Camas School Board of “allowing the Skyview coach’s social media narrative to continue a false narrative. “The repercussions from a faulty narrative have been very severe. What safeguards will you build to protect students? Our students have a target on their back now and Camas has become, far and wide, an emblem (for racist behavior).”

Prem Manjooran, another parent whose son was a member of the Camas junior varsity baseball team in 2022, wrote to the Camas School Board on May 22, and said the district and the greater Camas community had “failed its children” in the handling of the Skyview allegations and the response to Skyview’s junior varsity baseball coach, who had gone public with the allegations on his social media sites.

“My heart goes out to the young man at Skyview, and his family, who, as guests, were made to feel unwelcome and targeted. There can be no excuse for that. Words, actions, and ‘micro-aggressions’ – whether intentional or not – have meaning, and consequences. As uncomfortable as it is, we need to accept that – as a team, as a school, as a community. We need to leave no stone unturned to make sure that the young man and his family understand how deeply sorry we are,” Manjooran stated. “That said, and I want to be just as clear: we as a community have failed our children. We have allowed a rash, irresponsible social media post … and the multitude (of) allegations — almost all of which have been disproved — cynically designed for impact, and to ‘shock and awe,’ to shape the narrative. Despite the facts – not the narrative – surrounding that unfortunate afternoon having been clearly established, we, as a school district, as a Board, and as an administration, intentionally chose to not engage with our families and our students, and instead, devolved to a hasty, questionably worded ‘apology,’ an explicit acceptance of the ‘labels’ that social media have already assigned the team and our community, and a vague promise of mediation and remediation at some point in the future.”

“It is absolutely inexcusable that the school district — with seemingly little or no input from the school administration and the coaches, and with absolutely zero input from the families or the community at large — has accepted and perpetuated a ‘label,’ publicly ‘shaming’ the team and the community, with no concern whatsoever for the facts, our students, their mental health, their sense of self-worth as young adults, and the reality that the ‘teaching moments’ for our boys have been lost,” Manjooran continued. “We failed the young man who was our guest. We failed our children. There must be some acknowledgment and accountability. This simply cannot happen again. We can, we must, do better.”

A ‘timely, more efficient’ approach to investigations

Anzalone, Camas’ new schools superintendent, said has “been listening to both sides of these issues,” and knows “how politicized these incidents can be.”

“I’ve heard loud and clear that this is a good place for families and for education,” Anzalone said. “I think, at the end of the day … there is a desire to find balance between accountability and (knowing) that kids are going to make mistakes.”

Anzalone said he wants the Camas community to know that they have “a new superintendent, a new Camas High School principal and a new athletic director who are coming in and looking at things from that balanced perspective.”

The district will follow the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA)’s policy surrounding allegations of racist slurs or behavior during athletic events, which calls for game play to be halted after a report has been lodged.

“If a report is made, then the adults in a leadership capacity will agree that the game is stopped and open an investigation right away,” Anzalone explained. “What that means for us is that the game is second to any type of inappropropriate actions made by adults or kids on the court.”

Anzalone is also implementing a new policy on the Camas side, which calls for a “timely, more efficient” investigation at a local level.

The superintendent said he is counting on the district’s new athletic director, Stephen Baranowski, as well as the new Camas High School principal, Kelly O’Rourke — a veteran school administrator who worked with Anzalone in the Clark County School District in Nevada — to not only help ensure the prevention of these types of racially motivated incidents but also make sure any report of racist behavior from a member of the Camas School District community is addressed quickly and thoroughly.

“Those two are going to be really critical in looking at things with a new set of eyes and hitting these incidents in a timely manner so that parents, kids, staff and the community in general know what’s going to come of it,” Anzalone said. “(O’Rourke) comes from much more diverse and urban districts, so these are things she’s dealt with not only as a principal but also as a supervisor.”

Anzalone said he wants Baranowski — a 2006 Camas High graduate and former Papermakers baseball player who has worked as an educator, principal and dean of students at Liberty Middle School for the past decade — to help train Camas coaches on the importance of being an “upstander.”

“Coaches have to understand that they are upstanders and mandatory reporters,” Anzalone said. “They have to keep in mind … that the game needs to be stopped so we can investigate. And it’s important for families and students to be as upfront and honest as possible.”

Instead of immediately involving an independent investigator, Anzalone said the district will rely on a “more timely” internal investigation.

“We are counting on adults who have close relationships with the kids — because kids are more apt to share the truth with people they know and love and respect — rather than outside investigators.”

Asked if he was concerned that Camas students might be more likely to “close rank” and protect their teammates and friends in the absence of an impartial investigator, Anzalone said “that’s always a fear, but that’s why we have to establish this culture that, by hiding things or protecting one another, we’re not doing any good for our fellow peers.”

“It may take a little time to establish that, but if these relationships are made on the front end by our AD, our coaches and our students, my hope is that kids will want to do what’s right and what’s best and to do what’s maybe not best for them, but what will help the person who has been hurt.”

Baranowski bringing ‘HEART’ to Camsa coaches, teams

The district’s new athletic director, Stephen Baranowski, said he will discuss these issues when Camas coaches come together for a pre-school year “all coaches” meeting on Aug. 17.

“We have to talk about how we are preemptively going to have these conversations,” Baranowski said. “A lot of it is about establishing core values.”

The new athletic director said he wants coaches to work directly with student-athletes and to emphasize that Papermakers play with “HEART” — honor, excellence, accountability, respect and trust.

“We will be working with coaches and athletes to make sure everybody feels included in our programs, that every athlete is seen and served – and to make sure everybody we’re playing against feels they are welcomed,” Baranowski said.

Baranowski will be emphasizing “upstander training” when he meets with Camas coaches later this month.

“When you hear or see something on the field that doesn’t sit right with you, you have to push into those conversations,” Baranowski said. “We will be working with coaches — who will then work with players — on upstander training, so that they are interrupting those conversations that are inappropriate on the court … and we know it takes a lot of courage to stand up to a teammate.”

The new athletic director, who hails from Camas and its athletics programs, said he wants to help the school district build trust with the community and visiting teams.

“I come from Camas. I am a 2006 Camas High School graduate … and I have a love for Camas and for its athletics, which I think is one of the best avenues for character-building,” Baranowski said. “We have the opportunity to build a lot of trust this year — to tell the stories of the good things that are happening – and I look forward to doing that.”