Report documents changes at PHS following complaints of racial discrimination; Coach confirms no return to football program

Supt. Renee Palazzo

GLOCESTER – A recently released report on an investigation of complaints of racial abuse and harassment submitted by Supt. Renee Palazzo to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office addresses concerns brought forth by Ponaganset High School students about behavior both in classroom and on the athletic fields.

On March 23, 2021, the then principal Palazzo received a letter from the Special Assistant Attorney general Keith Hoffman, informing her of three complaints filed by Ponaganset students alleging racial discrimination and bullying at the regional school.

The report indicates that the school has taken steps since the complaints were filed in 2021, stating: “Foster-Glocester has implemented additional measures to enhance the ability of students and staff to report instances of racial bias, and improve Foster-Glocester’s investigations of these claims.” It also added that “no members of the District’s faculty or staff exhibited deliberate indifference, discrimination, bullying or harassment based on race towards those initiating the complaints.”

The complaints addressed student fights due to racial harassment, pictures of a student wearing a KKK hood on Snapchat, and students using various racial slurs.

One student complaint recalled a white student referring to another male student of color who was not present stating he would “run over the (N-word) with a tractor and lynch him.”

According to the report, teachers and administrators addressed the concerns that were brought to them, and investigated them.

When one such incident was reported to Asst. Principal Amanda Grundel, now the principal, she contacted the offending student and the student’s parents. Grundel offered to arrange a mediation between the offending student and the complainant but the offending student declined to participate. Ultimately, according to the report, Grundel made the determination that the offending student, who apologized, was remorseful.

In another incident a student reported that he was told he was a slave because he was black, alleging that he was told to kneel on the floor and have his head petted. Although the teacher in the room did not witness the incident, the student said that the teacher opposed Black History Month. The teacher, who was not identified in the report, later said she “… has an issue with singling out any particular racial, ethnic, religious or cultural group because she never wants to leave anyone out.” She also added that she “… also teaches certain specific courses and advocates for including all cultures and races so everyone feels included.”

Other complaints brought forward included the erasure of the word “diversity” on a student-created mural, later rewritten by Associate Principal Jennifer Stedman after the complaint was lodged. Other concerns included Confederate flags displayed on student vehicles.

Some of the complaints rolled over into athletics as well, including racially motivated fights in the locker room, and alleged inconsistencies in discipline practices. One student complained that a teammate suggested he, “return to his roots,” after the school bus en route to a football game on which they were riding passed what appeared to be a field of cotton. He also alleged that white and black athletes were not treated equally or punished equally when they broke rules.

The coach in question explained in the report that the “N word” was not tolerated at school or practice. He added that he had a team meeting with his players at the start of the school year with the athletic director and all parents and athletes participating in fall sports. He stated that racial slurs and the playing of any music containing such language was prohibited at practice or games.

Foster/Glocester Regional School Committee member Shelley Pezza referenced the report on the investigation last week when asked about another controversy at the school: the status of two longtime Ponaganset football coaches, James Cook and Anthony Sasso. That story first gained attention after more than 400 supporters signed a petition calling for the coaches rehiring.

“Sasso’s name was never even brought up until they did that story in the Valley Breeze/Observer,” James Cook told NRI NOW in an interview.

Cook went on to say that he was never told he was fired, but he was told he wouldn’t be rehired if he applied again.

“I felt as a head coach, I did everything I was supposed to do following school policies,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Cook said he had not reapplied at Ponaganset and had not applied elsewhere but was considering it, and that he had, “multiple offers,” elsewhere, adding that he had talked to a couple of coaches.

When asked about racism in the school, Cook said he had not witnessed any firsthand.

“It wasn’t apparent on the football field,” he added. “I never saw anything (racist).”

Cook said he enjoyed coaching there.

“We’re all very close,” he added. “Football isn’t something you do just during football season. We do it all year long. I loved coaching there. I loved those kids.”

School Committee Vice Chairperson Cindy Joyce told NRI NOW this week that she was not aware that the report was related to any decisions on coaching. 

The investigation by school administration, meanwhile, concluded that not only had teachers and administrators done their best to address the issues brought to them, but had clearly made an effort to improve relationships and atmosphere at the regional schools, including adopting mandatory training on reporting procedures for civil rights, bullying and Title IX complaints and reviewing all related Foster-Glocester policies at the start of every school year.

The report further states: “Foster-Glocester has implemented additional measures to bring more awareness and deeper understanding to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The social studies department plans to continue holding annual Black History Month events as part of its curriculum, including an event last fall to learn more about Native American culture, Palazzo notes. At the start of the school year students participated in various activities, including an equity event, to promote a positive, inclusive culture.

Coaches are now required to take and pass the National Federation of State High School Associations Implicit Bias Course. The District also was awarded a $500,000 grant by XQ+RI in 2020 to help implement school reform and initiatives. XQ Institute is an organization dedicated to rethinking the high school experience so that every student graduates ready to succeed in life. Foster-Glocester was one of  only two districts statewide chosen to receive the full grant award. The goal is to provide professional development and community awareness around equity and diversity to all staff and students district-wide. One of the committees formed as part of the grant includes a PHS Culture and Climate Committee, made up of teacher leaders who collaborate with students and administrators to improve the school culture and climate.

“I think it’s working out great,” said Joyce of the efforts. “I think Ponaganset is one of the most inclusive schools in the state.”

Joyce added that the staff has worked hard to improve climate after the incidents that took place, as had parents and students attending the district’s events and programs.

“They set very high standards,” she said. “I am pretty proud of them.”

Joyce said that racism and bullying were not tolerated by staff and that the school officials have made a point of trying to figure out what they can do better on a regular basis.

“It’s a huge priority,” she added.

Grundel, Athletic Director Jacob Keeling and Palazzo did not return numerous calls or emails regarding the report, which was released to NRI NOW on Wednesday, June 14.

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