There was no denying the derogatory chant heard by several football players from Amsterdam High School and the referee officiating Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake’s homecoming game last weekend.
Though only a handful of students were chanting “Amster-rico” from the home section of the stands, the racially charged taunt seemed to add insult to injury as the last minutes ticked off the clock during BH-BL’s 49-0 romp over the Rams. The Spartans’ coach, Matt Shell, was incensed enough that he charged to the announcer’s booth, grabbed the microphone and threatened to forfeit the game if the home fans didn’t stop the offending taunt.
“It was just a symbol of how serious we’re taking it,” said Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Superintendent Patrick McGrath during a news conference at the district’s offices Tuesday.
And for those students who carried on with the chant, it’s only going to get more serious. District officials are now discussing lengthy suspensions and revoking privileges to attend sporting events for the remainder of the year for the six to 12 students believed to be involved in the chant.
The incident has prompted stern rebukes throughout both districts — even among some of their classmates.
“It was kind of from people’s gut,” said McGrath of the reaction from his district, “that this is wrong, this isn’t who we are and this isn’t what we’re about.”
McGrath said some students have already stepped forward with tips about the incident. He said others outraged over the conduct of their classmates have been vocal about their displeasure.
Sam Bartlett, president of the high school’s Student Government Organization and a varsity football player who was on the field Saturday, authored a succinct letter to his peers in Amsterdam apologizing for the conduct displayed in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake section. He’s offering to plan an event between the two districts to make amends. The letter was accompanied by roughly 900 signatures from students and members of the high school faculty who agreed with his message of tolerance.
“These actions, involving a few individuals, are not representative of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake student body as a whole,” he wrote in the letter. “By working side by side, we hope that our friendly rivalry and the mutual respect and understanding between our schools continues to grow in a positive manner.”
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School Principal Tim Brunson said he was embarrassed by the behavior exhibited by what he characterized as an isolated group of students. He said the taunt was something he personally hadn’t heard shouted at games before Saturday.
“I’ve been part of the Burnt Hills football program since I came to the district in 2000, so in the past 13 years, I’ve had no knowledge of it,” he said. “In my time on the sidelines, as my time as a teacher, chaperoning games, as an administrator the last seven years — I’ve never heard it at Burnt Hills games before.”
Not that the term “Amsterico” is new. The Internet is replete with references to the slang, which is a derogatory term referencing Amsterdam’s large Hispanic population.
Like many of his classmates, Rams team captain Devin Rosario is used to hearing the term, even in instances where it’s not meant to be derogatory. But Saturday, he said there was no mistaking the negative tenor of the chant.
“When it’s being chanted by fans of the opposite team, that’s obviously derogatory,” he said. “I’m Puerto Rican. I take it personally.”
Rosario, who admits he wasn’t among the players who heard the chant, said as many as half the students on his team are Puerto Rican and felt the same way. They agreed the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake students caught chanting should face repercussions.
“I hope those kids are disciplined,” he said before jogging onto the field for practice.
Amsterdam High School Principal David Ziskin agreed, but hopes the discipline meted out by the neighboring district isn’t too harsh. Instead, he hopes the offending students learn from the episode.
“I hope this doesn’t define the kids who were chanting,” he said. “If I was defined by what I was like at 15, I wouldn’t be here.”
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake administrators are reaching out to Schenectady County Embraces Diversity — an organization that works to engage the community in conversation about diversity issues — to seek input and assistance in working with students. BH-BL Principal Brunson said the hope is to take the unfortunate incident and use it as a teaching moment — to remind students of the importance of diversity and good citizenship.
“We take it very seriously, and we want to work toward a resolution,” he said.
But in Amsterdam, some are already moving on. Rosario said he wants to get back to what he does best — football.
This weekend, the Rams have their own homecoming against South Glens Falls. Rosario wants his team to prepare for that battle, not focus on the one they left behind in Burnt Hills.
“We all need to move past this,” he said. “We need to get back to football.”