Covington Catholic students return to school amid threats, social media firestorm

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 image a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Kaya Taitano, Instagram via CNN Newsource)

Students at Covington Catholic High School returned to class Wednesday morning following security threats prompted by a viral video showing a face-to-face confrontation between a Covington student and a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

There was a "heavy police presence" in the area surrounding the school, Perry Schaible of WKRC in Cincinnati reported. Police cruisers were parked outside the Kentucky private school and officers patrolled inside the building throughout the day.

Authorities, school administrators and the Covington Catholic Diocese canceled classes Tuesday and ordered all students, parents and faculty to stay off the campus. Law enforcement officials said the precautions were necessary to ensure the safety of students and faculty in the wake of a social media firestorm.

Over the last four days following the Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Covington school administrators have met with local and state law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security to address credible security concerns.

In a YouTube video, two students at the all-boys Catholic school described the threats they received from complete strangers following the incident. "Some of these include that we should be locked in the school and it should be burned to the ground, the school being bombed, school shooting threats," one student said. "It's really scary."

Other students were reportedly doxxed, meaning they had their personal information and their families' information shared across the internet. This led to a "tsunami of hateful messages," according to another student.

Amid the confusion, outrage and widely varying interpretations of what took place, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School announced that an "independent, third-party investigation" will begin this week to get to the bottom of the incident in Washington. The school and diocese said they would not provide any further statements until the investigation has concluded.

"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," they wrote in a statement.

The confrontation took place Friday outside the Lincoln Monument, near an Indigenous Peoples Rally. A group of Covington students was on an annual trip to Washington to attend the March for Life, which also took place Friday.

The viral video clip showed Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat standing face-to-face with Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American elder with the Omaha tribe. Phillips, a longtime activist and Vietnam veteran, was participating in the Indigenous Peoples March.

The video did not show any of the events leading up to the confrontation but was quickly shared across social and traditional media. The clip showed Phillips played a ceremonial drum and chanted as Sandmann stood silently grinning. The teen was surrounded by about 100 of his peers who were shouting confusedly and many were sporting MAGA hats.

Social media, traditional media, politicians and others rushed to characterize the 30-second exchange between Sandmann and Phillips as "racist," "disrespectful" and "hateful." News outlets hastily concluded that a group of privileged white high school teens "surrounded" and "mocked" a Native American elder. Many critics linked the students' alleged behavior to their support for President Donald Trump.

According to videos that emerged later, there was more to the story than first reported.

Before Phillips approached the students, there was a tense exchange between the high school boys and a group of about four or five members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a black nationalist religious group that is reportedly becoming "more militant," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Footage showed the Hebrew Israelites insulting the students, calling them "crackers," "Donald Trump incest babies" and challenging them to a confrontation. The students gathered behind the Black Hebrews and jeered at them. Before the confrontation, a video showed the Black Hebrews shouting at Native American activists, denigrating their heritage, insulting white Jewish passersby and black passersby.

Additional video footage showed the boys apparently mocking the Native Americans with tomahawk chops. According to some disputed accounts, a few of the boys used racially-charged language.

*Warning: this video contains some explicit language.*

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Nathan Phillips explained that he intervened with his drum and a prayer chant to "defuse" what he saw as a dangerous situation instigated by the students. "It looked like these young men were going to attack these guys. They were going to hurt them," Phillips said, claiming the boys did not approve of their religion or skin color. "To be honest, they looked like they were going to lynch them."

Nick Sandmann had a different perspective and said he felt "threatened" by the group of adults and "unsure" when he was approached by Phillips. "In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing," he said in an interview with NBC's "Today Show" which aired Wednesday. "But I can't say that I’m sorry for listening to him [Phillips] and standing there."

Many observers questioned why none of the children's parents or chaperones intervened. In one video, chaperone Jim Wilson can be seen stepping between the Covington students and the Hebrew Israelites, shouting at the boys, "Back it up!"

Wilson told WKRC that the group of teens were not the instigators but had gathered at the Lincoln Monument to wait for their bus to take them back to Kentucky. "Our boys did nothing. No violence. They did not attack those gentlemen. They stood there waiting for their bus," he said.

As the situation escalated, chaperones reportedly encouraged the students to drown out the Black Hebrews with school chants. This raucous public pep rally also appeared to get out of hand. A student tore off his shirt and his peers roared their approval. This was the scene moments before Phillips approached the group of boys and engaged in the now-infamous standoff with Sandmann.

Asked about the expression on his face that many interpreted as a derisive "smirk," Sandmann explained, "I see it as a smile saying, 'This is the best you're going to get out of me— not going to get any further act of aggression. And I'm willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face.'"

Sandmann fought back against claims that the grin was an expression of white superiority, saying racism is not part of his Catholic faith. "People judge me based on one expression," he said. "They've gone from there to titling me and labeling me as a racist person, someone that's disrespectful to adults... They've had to assume so many things to get there without consulting anyone that can give them the opposite story."

The one-sidedness of the initial coverage led politicians to weigh in on the incident. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addressed the situation from the Senate floor Wednesday blaming "far-left activists and members of the national and state media" for attacking the Covington students and threatening their families.

"In a matter of hours, these students were tried, convicted and sentenced by the media where accuracy is irrelevant and the presumption of innocence does not exist," McConnell said. He noted that the community is continuing to work with law enforcement authorities to address the threats, "but it's unclear when any sense of normalcy might return."

President Donald Trump also weighed in on social media this weekend and heralded the Covington high school students as "symbols of Fake News and how evil it can be." Trump tweeted, "They have captivated the attention of the world, and I know they will use it for the good - maybe even to bring people together. It started off unpleasant, but can end in a dream!"

Trump is reportedly considering inviting the boys from Covington Catholic to visit the White House. Any visit would take place after the government shutdown ends, according to reports. The White House did not confirm the invite but referred back to Trump's tweet.

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