Disputed Catholic School Investigation Clears Students in MAGA Standoff with Tribal Elder
While a church official lauded proof of "exoneration," Native American activists dismissed the probe of the viral encounter
An investigation commissioned by a Kentucky Catholic school of the much-publicized face-off last month between the school’s students and Native Americans in Washington, D.C., found “no evidence” the students made “offensive or racist statements” to a tribal elder or members of his group, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report also concluded the students did not “instigate the incident.”
Video of the Jan. 18 encounter that initially went viral on social media showed Covington Catholic High School junior Nick Sandmann staring down at Nathan Phillips, 63, a member of the Omaha tribe, as he played a drum and sang.
Phillips told PEOPLE he walked into the group of students after they began chanting back at a handful of Black Hebrew Israelites who were insulting the students and others.
Sandmann and some other boys surrounding Phillips were wearing red hats bearing President Donald Trump‘s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Clips of the incident also showed students laughing in response to Phillips’ song and doing the tomahawk chop.
After the school’s investigation concluded, Phillips said in a statement through the Lakota People’s Law Project: “I stand by my original observation that the situation seemed potentially dangerous and that I felt a spiritual call to sing between the two groups as a peacemaker.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project vigorously disputed the report’s conclusions and said in its own statement that the significance of the Covington teens’ tomahawk chops “would naturally be taken by a Native person as a mockery of his culture.”
The investigative report, conducted at the behest of the Diocese of Covington, states that students performed the tomahawk chop “to the beat of Mr. Phillips’ drumming.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project dismissed this as “a total ignorance of — or, more likely, a willful refusal to acknowledge — the racist connotations of this action on the part of the Kentucky hometown investigative firm.”
The group further noted what it called a failure of the investigators to grapple with the political implications of wearing pro-Trump attire, given the president’s history of racially inflammatory comments.
Following initial widespread condemnation of the students, including by the Diocese of Covington, both the diocese and Covington Catholic High hired Greater Cincinnati Investigation Inc., of Taylor Mill, Kentucky, to conduct the probe.
Four licensed investigators spent 240 hours interviewing 43 students and chaperones on the trip and reviewed about 50 hours of “internet activity” on YouTube, Vimeo, major news networks, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
While the Washington Post reported that an eyewitness heard some Covington students chant “build the wall,” investigators said they “found no evidence” of that.
The report also states that investigators “found no evidence of offensive or racist statements by students to Mr. Phillips or members of his group.”
Investigators said that “none of the students felt threatened by Mr. Phillips and many stated they were ‘confused’ ” by his behavior.
Rev. Roger Foys, the bishop of Covington, said in a letter to parents that his “hope and expectation” that the inquiry “would ‘exonerate our students so that they can move forward with their lives’ has been realized.”
Investigators did not interview Phillips, whom they said they could not contact.
The Lakota People’s Law Project contended that investigators made a “half-hearted” attempt to reach Phillips — with whom the group has a relationship and could have facilitated contact — and that they did not interview other participants in the Indigenous Peoples March in January who had knowledge of the run-in with students.
Investigators said they traveled to Phillips’ home but he was not there. They also emailed his family.
While Sandmann was not interviewed in person, investigators said the teen’s written statement of what happened after the incident “accurately reflect the facts.”
Sandmann’s attorney, L. Lin Wood, who has raised the specter of legal action, is “pleased with, but not surprised by, the conclusions of the investigation,” he said in an email to PEOPLE.
“Those videos provide incontrovertible evidence that Nick did nothing wrong and did not instigate the incident with Nathan Phillips,” he wrote, continuing:
“Nick did not approach Nathan Phillips … Phillips made no attempt to get around or avoid Nick. Nick did not verbally assault, taunt, mock, harass, disparage or threaten Phillips in any way.”
The report, Wood continued, “advances one of our goals for Nick — to correct the public record and firmly establish the truth that Nick was innocent of any wrongdoing. Nick was the victim of agenda-driven and biased adults who used him to further their own agendas both at the time of the incident and in the widespread false coverage concerning it.”
The investigators’ report addressed some of the students wearing red MAGA hats and noted most were bought after arriving in D.C. for an anti-abortion March for Life.
“We found no evidence of a school policy prohibiting political apparel on school-sponsored trips,” the report said.
The Lakota People’s Law Project blasted the investigators for “completely missing” the significance wearing MAGA hats has for Native Americans.
“Trump regularly makes racist comments about Native Americans, even going so far as to joke about genocidal acts against First Nations people,” the group said. “The wearing of MAGA hats has taken on a whole new meaning, especially for Native Americans.”