An independent report released last week appears to clear Covington Catholic High School students of any wrongdoing in a widely publicized confrontation with a Native American protester after last month’s March for Life in Washington, D.C.
The Catholic Diocese of Covington in northern Kentucky commissioned a Cincinnati firm to clarify the circumstances of the incident, which caused a national uproar. Footage from a viral video initially appeared to show the group of students from Park Hills, Ky., surrounding and chanting at Nathan Phillips, who had participated in the Indigenous People’s March the same day as the March for Life. Social media exploded in a frenzy over the video, calling the students racist and shaming junior Nick Sandmann, who can be seen in the video grinning and standing inches away from Phillips’ drum.
Additional footage revealed the students, who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial after the March for Life to board buses back home, did not initiate the contact with Phillips and instead attempted to remain neutral in a confusing situation.
Four investigators spent 240 hours interviewing chaperones and students and pored over 50 hours of related internet activity. Though they did not conduct a fresh interview with Sandmann, they used his statement written immediately following the incident. The team was unable to speak with Phillips despite numerous phone calls, emails, and a visit to his residence in Ypsilanti, Mich., where they waited six hours for his return and ultimately left him a note requesting an interview.
The report painted a much different picture than mainstream media accounts last month. It said that most of the students and chaperones present were focused not on Phillips but on a nearby group of demonstrators affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites, who were “saying offensive things to anyone who walked by and not just the students,” according to the report. The Covington students started doing school chants to drown out the group. Some of the students thought Phillips was coming to join in their chants when he approached them with his drum. None of the teens or chaperones who were interviewed said they felt threatened by Phillips, and the report found no evidence that the students made racist or offensive remarks to either Phillips or the Black Hebrew Israelites.
The report also noted that many of the Covington students seen wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats associated with President Donald Trump in the video bought the hats at the March for Life rally, and no school policy prohibited them from wearing political apparel on the trip.
Attorneys for Sandmann filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post in federal court on Tuesday, saying the newspaper was “one of the first, if not the first, mainstream outlet to expand coverage of the Jan. 18 incident from social media to mainstream media.” The suit accuses of the Post of negligence for not looking further into the circumstances of the video before reporting on it, according to The Washington Times. Sandmann is seeking $250 million in compensatory and punitive damages, and lawyers indicated they might sue additional media outlets.
The Diocese of Covington said in a letter accompanying the investigative report that the inquiry exonerates the students. The diocese received criticism initially for condemning the perceived actions of the students, then backtracking once longer video footage reframed the confrontation.
“In truth, taking everything into account, our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” Bishop Roger Foys wrote. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”