Utah students barked like dogs at Asian American and Polynesian basketball players

Parents say they feel school officials have brushed off their concerns about the behavior.

A screenshot from a video obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune shows Roy High School students barking at a Hunter High player during a boys basketball game in January. The sounds stemmed from a game on Jan. 13, 2023 and appeared to target Asian American and Polynesian players. The previous year, parents say that Roy High students shouted "dog eater" at the same players.

The player was kneeling on the waxed court to lace up his Nikes when he heard it.

The announcer had just bellowed his name to substitute into the game, and the student section from the opposing team responded to his appearance on the sideline by barking. Quietly, at first. Then loudly, ferociously.

That’s when he realized: It was happening again.

Last year, when the player had come to Roy High for the annual basketball matchup with Hunter High, the same student section heard his name and saw his skin and taunted him for being Asian American, witnesses said. They called him “dog eater,” a derogatory racial epithet.

He had worried about coming back here this year, for the game on Jan. 13. But he’d talked to his parents and coaches, who had talked to administrators from both high schools, he was told, as well as officials with the Utah High School Activities Association. The Roy students would be lectured about the slur and wouldn’t repeat it.

But hearing the barking now, a year later, he knew what it meant. When he stepped to the free throw line, he heard voices scream out: “Go home and eat more rice.”

Several parents of the Hunter High players shared the boy’s account and video they shot during the game with The Salt Lake Tribune to verify what happened. Based on the footage, the barking from the Roy High side of the gym — where there were about 50 students — appears to get louder when the Asian American and Polynesian players on Hunter’s team had the ball.

The videos don’t include the “rice” comment, but three of the parents reported also hearing that multiple times from where they sat on the opposite bleachers.

They say others slurs were used, as well — though not as frequently as the anti-Asian ones. One mom said her biracial son, Zaquel, was being called “Z the queer”; he is not part of the LGBTQ community. Another mom said the Roy student section was giving fake names to the Latino students on the team, calling them “José,” for instance, when that was not their name. Another boy was being called “ugly acne face.”

Some of the parents tried to push back. One Hunter mom can be heard yelling in a video, “Shut the hell up!”

“This should not be happening,” said Mandee Cossa, Zaquel’s mom. “It’s completely unacceptable.”

Cossa said a Hunter High parent went up to an administrator of Roy High during the game to report the taunting and try to stop it. Cossa said the mom came back and said the administrator told her that he hadn’t heard anything, but that he’d stand in front of the student section from then on.

After the game — which the barking and yelling continued throughout, according to the parents who spoke with The Tribune and according to their videos — the Roy administrator said he still hadn’t heard what some of the Hunter players, a coach and the parents were all reporting by the end, Cossa said.

Nichol Holdaway, another parent of a Hunter High player, said she got the same response from the Roy principal when she emailed him. She had been sitting on the Roy side of the gym that night because there was better access for her mother, who uses a wheelchair. She said she heard clearly what was said.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “I can’t believe that any part of that was OK with any of the administrators. We know what we heard.”

Was it racism?

Lane Findlay, spokesperson for Weber School District — which includes Roy High — said in a statement that administrators asked the Roy students to stop the barking after hearing from a Hunter coach; Findlay said he believes the students did quit making the noise.

He said the school district is still investigating the incident but does not believe the barking was racially motivated.

“This is something that has occurred regularly at games,” Findlay wrote in an email. “It’s been common for the student section to do this throughout a game and it doesn’t appear to be something that is used to target a specific player based on their race, rather it’s more situational as far as what’s going on during the game (e.g. free throw shooting, in-bounds pass).”

He said the district will address it, though, if it’s “being perceived as targeting specific students based on their race” and it takes the issues seriously.

Holdaway challenged that. “It definitely wasn’t happening to all players. The barking was at the Asian American players.” Coupled with the “rice” comment, too, and the remarks from last year, she thinks the racism is undeniable.

Findlay maintained that no racial slurs were heard by administrators during the game or brought to their attention. He also said they were never made aware of taunting last year; a records request by The Tribune for any reports on that did not yield results, according to the district.

The Hunter parents said that’s not true. Cossa said she reported it to Roy High administrators last year and was assured it would be addressed; she believes that’s why “dog eater” wasn’t repeated this year and the students barked instead.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Roy High School sweatshirt pictured on September 16, 2016.

One mom, Halli, said she stood by her husband as he spoke to Roy administrators about the fan behavior after the 2022 game. Her husband was a coach for the Hunter basketball team last year; The Tribune confirmed that through online records. The Tribune agreed to identify her by her first name because she is concerned about how her family and son will be treated when Roy High comes to play at Hunter High on Thursday.

Some of the parents also showed copies of emails to The Tribune that they’d sent following that match to the Utah High School Activities Association, or UHSAA, which oversees high school sports in the state.

“The coaches are reporting it and parents are reporting it and nothing is happening,” Halli said. “They’re acting like we’re making this up. I don’t get it. Why would we do that? Our kids are being hurt.”

Halli’s family is Polynesian. And her son was barked at, she said, during the most recent game, which Hunter High lost.

When they announced her son’s name, the students on the Roy side also targeted his heritage by mocking the haka, a ceremonial dance in Māori and islander culture that signifies strength, she said. The Roy students jeeringly stuck out their tongues in a dramatic way and pretended to do the dance with their arms stuck out straight in front of them.

“That’s a sacred practice to us,” Halli said. “That’s just not OK.”

She said she also heard the “dog eater” slur hurled last year at both her son and her husband, while he was coaching. To her, nothing about the incidents has felt vague or open to interpretation over whether it’s racism.

Whose responsibility is it to take action?

This year, Halli said, the new coach informed the referees about the mocking. That coach could not be reached for comment. Cossa said she commends him and the other coaches, though, for both standing up for the team and keeping their cool.

Halli said she has shared her statements with Granite School District, which oversees Hunter High and is collaborating on the investigation with Weber. Halli added that she knows other parents who have provided videos.

She worries information is being funneled or purposefully not shared with entities. For instance, Halli said she spoke with Hunter High administrators last year about the problem. But it doesn’t appear that information was ever shared with the administrators at Granite School District.

Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said he believes the issues last year were possibly handled between the individual schools and didn’t reach the district offices.

Cossa said she reached out to the UHSAA last year but never received a response.

She feels the association has a role in preventing such conduct because before every high school sports game, a statement from UHSAA is read by the announcer encouraging the fans to be polite. “Do rowdy right,” the statement says, and, “Raise the bar.”

Cossa knows the phrases by heart, after all the games she’s attended to support her son. It was instituted in the 2017-18 school year.

The UHSAA didn’t respond to questions from The Tribune about previously being informed about the concerns with Roy High’s student section. The association said only that it has been made aware of the allegations this year and has talked to administrators at both schools.

“The schools are in conversation and are working together on addressing the matter, along with addressing any necessary measures that may need to be taken,” said Jon Oglesby, UHSAA assistant director. Currently, that’s the process set by the organization for dealing with these type of allegations.

This photo provided by a parent shows players on the Hunter High boys basketball team smile during a team banquet in 2022.

This photo provided by a parent shows players on the Hunter High boys basketball team smile during a team banquet in 2022.

Findlay said administrators will take action, if merited, after the district concludes its investigation.

“School officials are in the process of reviewing any video that was taken, as well as working to identify any students who may have been involved, including potential witnesses,” he said. “Weber School District prohibits and will not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or racism in our schools, and appropriate action will be taken against any student if it is determined they violated our student code of conduct and district policy.”

Horsley said Granite is helping with the investigation.

Halli said she doesn’t understand why the UHSAA hasn’t responded by sanctioning the school or requiring sensitivity training for the student section there. The association does have that authority, and Granite School District said it would bring the officials from UHSAA in, if needed. But the organization also operates privately — set up to do so by the state — meaning it’s not subject to public records requests for the emails it has received on the issue.

“I really need them to know this is a problem we’re having,” Halli said. “It’s not just one year we’re having it.”

Many of the Hunter players are afraid to speak out, she said, and she and other parents don’t want their sons to say anything for fear of more targeting. Most of the boys, she said, let the taunting roll off of them during the game and didn’t engage. But it’s taken a toll on them since, Halli added.

“Our kids just feel defeated,” the mom said, “that no one is advocating for them.”

What happens next?

Granite School District has one of the most diverse student bodies in Utah.

Across the district, 55% of the population is students of color, according to fall enrollment numbers. At Hunter High, the percentage is even higher; 68% are students of color.

The parents of the Hunter High players said they feel the basketball team, which matches that diversity, is often the target of racism when playing schools with more white students. They’ve heard taunts elsewhere, said Cossa, but it’s never been as loud or blatant than at Roy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) More that a hundred people gather at the candlelight vigil for Hunter High football players Paul Tahi , 15, and Tivani Lopati, 14, who were shot on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022, in West Valley City, near Hunter High School along 1400 South at Mountain View Corridor.

It didn’t help, she added, the game this year fell on the one-year anniversary of when two Hunter High students were shot and killed outside their school. The boys on the team, she said, were already having a hard day.

Within Weber School District, 20% of the student body is students of color. At Roy High, it’s slightly higher, with 30% students of color. That’s less than half of the total at Hunter High, though.

Horsley said in recent years, “we have seen an increase in racial taunts being reported to us” in Granite School District. There has also been in increase at other schools, which The Tribune has reported on year after year.

It’s gotten worse since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, with more racist taunts and cheers at sporting events, particularly toward those of Asian American descent.

Shu Cheng, the executive director for the Asian Association of Utah, said he condemns the racism displayed at the Roy High game. While they may still be teenagers, the students in the section yelling the slurs, he said, should know better and be taught to act differently.

“If the students can be identified in the video or by other witnesses, they should be suspended from attending games for a defined period of time,” he added.

“If the Roy High School officials were informed of such unfortunate incidences before,” Cheng added, “I think the responsibilities of school administrators should be addressed.”

The UHSAA didn’t comment beyond saying the schools will handle the investigation. It hasn’t organized additional training for fans or athletes about appropriate sportsmanship in light of the increased reports of racism.

The Hunter High parents said moving forward, they’d like a clear process for handling complaints of racism or bias in high school games. That way, they said, they’ll know who to report to and there will be a set procedure for how to investigate and issue discipline.

“If they don’t, it won’t matter,” Cossa said. “We’ll keep having the same problems over and over.”

Roy and Hunter will not be in the same region next year, but Halli said she doesn’t want the behavior to continue against other schools.

If she had stayed silent, Halli said, she would worry about what the next player might hear, standing on the sideline about the enter the game.