A Black Utah student was called the N-word during a football game. Then he got punished.

His family questions rigid athletic policy and Davis School District’s response.

(Craig Hammond) Pictured is Elias West, playing football for Layton High School.

Elias West rested on the turf while the group of players who had tackled him slowly untangled themselves and got up.

As they started to peel away, West said, he noticed one boy on the other team linger over him. With his back to the stadium lights and his teammates providing cover, the boy hissed just loud enough, West said, for him to hear from the ground: “Stay down, you n-----.”

West said he could see that the boy’s face was white from the gaps in his helmet. And West knew the boy could see the Black skin of his arms extending from under his shoulder pads. West immediately felt the sting and reacted.

“Don’t f-----g call me a n-----,” West said he shouted back, jumping up to defend himself.

The next thing he heard was a loud whistle from the referee and the word “ejection.” But only West was being pulled from the game.

“I was the one that got punished,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune, recounting what happened to him at the October game. He was stunned.

The referee told West and his parents — his dad was already on the sidelines, and his mom rushed down from the stands — that he had only heard West use the slur, not any of the players from the opposing team. And the Utah High School Activities Association has a zero tolerance policy.

His mom tried to push back, questioning why a Black student would use that word against a white student if he wasn’t provoked; it didn’t make any sense. But the refs brushed her off, she said.

(Craig Hammond) Pictured is Elias West, playing football for Layton High School.

West, a senior and starting running back for Layton High in Davis School District, would be required to sit out for the next two games for using the language. That meant he’d miss his last regular season game and his last chance to play before recruiters.

“So a white boy said the N-word, a Black boy defending himself said the same N-word, and yet only one was punished,” said West’s mom, Lissa West. The other team “went home and celebrated a win that night while my son went home in tears wondering why he decided to stand up against racism.”

Still, the UHSAA says it stands behind its decision to discipline West.

Davis School District, whose jurisdiction includes both the teams, also investigated the exchange. But it did not take any action against the opposing team or the players there. A spokesman for the district did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The incident occurred in early October, shortly after the district came under a public microscope with the release of a damning report from the U.S. Department Justice for mishandling cases of racism. The district had received the report in September, before the October game.

The DOJ found that district administrators in Davis intentionally ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years — failing to respond to hundreds of reports from Black students after they had been called slaves and the N-word.

Lissa West, who is white, says after her son’s case, she has little confidence that the district will change. It was given an early opportunity after the report to do better, she said, and ended up disciplining a Black student for standing up for himself.

‘Our sportsmanship policy’

Jeff Cluff, the assistant director of UHSAA, said the association has seen an uptick in racial slurs being used against students and staff of color during games across the state this fall.

That includes Tre Smith, a Black basketball coach at Cyprus High in Salt Lake County, who walked out to his car to find “white power” scrawled in the dust on his back windshield last month. (Though the problem has also persisted for longer, too, including derogatory comments hurled at another Black Utah high school coach in 2019.)

UHSAA held an emergency meeting with coaches from all districts and charters to try to address the issue this year, instructing them to talk to their teams about appropriate language. Cluff said the situation seemed to improve from there.

But, he said, the association has had its no-tolerance policy for slurs — including against race, religion and gender — for more than three years now, and Cluff believes that must be enforced evenly with all incidents in order to stem the problem. Players who use a slur are ejected and suspended for two games, regardless of what instigated it.

The policy is enforced by referees who have to hear the word and know which player said it in order to take action. If a slur is heard but the player is not identifiable, the game is stopped, Cluff said. No one is ejected, but coaches are told to talk to their players on the sidelines.

“That’s just our sportsmanship policy,” Cluff said.

With West’s case, Cluff added: “I feel bad for the young man. I don’t doubt that something was said to him that made him react the way he reacted. But it still doesn’t justify the reaction. And we still have to respond to that.”

The UHSAA official also noted that the referee, who is white, reported hearing West say a slightly different sentence than the one West recalls. The referee said he heard: “Shut the f--- up, you [N-word].”

West has acknowledged he used both the profanity and the slur, but said he was defending himself, asking the white boy not to use the word, as opposed to calling the white boy the slur. He said he regrets using the obscenities, though he also notes it was in the heat of the moment when he was being called an ugly name on the field, a place he has typically felt safe.

“This sport has taught me a lot of life lessons,” West said. “It’s always been the thing I can go to when things aren’t right. What I am taking away from this is to always stand up for myself and against racism, no matter the consequences.”

And that includes when the policy itself isn’t working and the school district doesn’t step in, either, he said.

An issue with enforcement

Sapphire Robinson, a Black licensed child and family therapist in Utah, said Black kids are often conditioned by their families to not talk back to white people so as not to put themselves in danger. Black girls are coached to not look angry; Black boys to not look threatening, she said.

Though it’s not fair, she acknowledged, she sees it as a coping mechanism for people of color in predominantly white communities, like Davis County, which is nearly 90% white. But, Robinson said, Black children should be able to stand up for themselves without fear of repercussions.

“To have [West] attempting to stand up for himself and then having that end in a consequence, just puts us right back with that stereotype of being a scary Black guy instead of a kid that was hurt and responding to that hurt,” Robinson said.

She appreciates the UHSAA policy against racial slurs, but she said it shouldn’t be used to further target students of color. The organization should look into the context behind an incident, who is using the word and why, she said. It should handle cases individually, not looking at them all as the same, she added.

“It feels like their response to incidents like this are that they’re not being racist or biased, they’re just following protocol,” she said. “That’s not enough.”

Already, she noted, Black students are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers for similar school infractions, a point which is supported by multiple national studies; the DOJ also found that was occurring in Davis School District where the incident with West happened. And reactions like this, that don’t include a punishment for the white student who is said to have started the incident, reinforce that, Robinson said.

“Black youth and Black men are being more closely scrutinized for these behaviors and more harshly penalized,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sapphire Robinson, a therapist and member of Black Live Matter Utah, joins other activists on the steps of Utah's Capitol on Friday, August 28, 2020.

Cluff, who has worked as a referee, said there are “always going to be limitations” with the policy. And the organization has previously said it has work to do with responding to incidents of racial harassment. But he does not believe West’s case should’ve been handled differently. He repeated that no one heard the slur from the white player and that, as such, no action could be taken under the rules set out in the policy.

Rae Duckworth, the leader of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Utah, doesn’t think that should be the standard. One person hearing or not hearing a remark leaves the discipline process open for error, she said.

The fact that the opposing team hasn’t been “corrected or educated, that’s concerning,” she said. “They need to be held accountable in some way. You can’t just brush that off. You can’t just let that go.”

No response to previous racism

UHSAA’s involvement in a case ends with the discipline of the player, and then a school district can investigate further and decide if more action or appeals are necessary.

Lissa West said she reached out to Davis School District administrators the night the slur was used, seeking a better resolution than her son being ejected and suspended from playing. She said she has also reassured Elias that she believes he did the right thing in defending himself.

“To punish the minority for telling someone not to use that racial slur against him is nonsense,” she said.

She also noted that Elias has been called slurs before on the field and has not reacted. “He hit his breaking point with this one,” she said.

Lissa West said the district conducted an investigation but “nobody on the other team ‘fessed up so nothing happened. That was it.”

She’s disappointed in the district’s reaction. Even without a formal finding of wrongdoing by one student, she would’ve like to see the district require the team to go through sensitivity training.

“I feel like Davis should have done more,” she said. “The district had a responsibility to do something with that Syracuse team.”

She said the response to this case has been similar to how the district responded when the family has reported racism at school in the past.

Elias was in seventh grade when three boys targeted him on the bus. For three weeks, they would taunt him about his skin color, the shape of his nose, she said. They’d tell him: “Lift up your shirt so I can see the scars on your back,” a reference to slaves being whipped.

The boys were two years older and were learning about the Civil War at the time, West said.

She called the district — principals and administrators and teachers, anyone she could get a hold of — several times; she emailed the superintendent, too. Little happened, she said. The kids were allowed to continue riding the bus. The bullying continued, too, for a bit until the boys became uninterested.

“I feel like five years later, here we are again,” West said.

Robinson, the therapist, said she’s heard about several cases like this at Davis. She also said she knows parents, additionally, who were too traumatized by their experiences, with the racism their kids faced and the lack of a response from the district, that they refused to talk to DOJ investigators. Some started home-schooling their kids.

The district also is currently dealing with community backlash for how it handled the case of 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor, who died by suicide after her mom said she was bullied for being Black and autistic. Brittany Tichenor-Cox said her concerns were ignored, even those she reported after the district received the Department of Justice’s findings.

West, who also has two Black daughters in the district who are younger than Elias, said: “All this has taught my kids is don’t say anything. When they do, look what happened. It was worse.”

(Stephanie Ward) Pictured is the West family, with Elias West, a student at Layton High School, on the right.