EAST ST. LOUIS • The Illinois state superintendent upheld the East St. Louis School District’s original decision to cancel the boys track season after a brawl in the stands at a meet last week.
The state’s intervention reverses the East St. Louis School Board’s unanimous vote on Monday morning that attempted to reinstate the track season.
The altercation started in the stands. But a “significant number” of members of the track team joined in, said district Superintendent Arthur Culver.
Culver said he made the “difficult decision” to cancel the track season because he was worried for safety at future track meets.
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The School Board discussed the issue in closed session, then voted at an unscheduled special meeting Monday to overturn Culver’s decision. The board room was packed with more than 130 people, including students, clergy, activists, alumni and other community members who came out to protest the cancellation.
“The board felt that not every student should be punished for what a few did,” said Board President Kinnis Williams after the meeting.
State Superintendent Tony Smith had the power to overturn the board’s decision because the school district operates under a consent decree with the state.
Smith said his office reviewed several videos of the brawl and clearly saw “several” members of the boys track team involved. He cited Culver’s concerns that the tension that inflamed the brawl could lead to safety issues at any future meets.
“It is clear to me that the tensions in East St. Louis have continued to escalate and the School District needs to take swift and careful action to ensure the safety and security of student athletes, spectators, and competitors,” Smith wrote in a letter to Culver on Monday.
Leading up to the special meeting, dozens of East St. Louis High School students walked out of school to protest the cancellation of the season. They marched on State Street on an almost 3-mile route to the school district office.
“This is their one key to getting out of here, to be somebody,” said Erica Brooks, an East St. Louis alumna of Lincoln High School and a former track athlete, at a news conference of activists held Monday morning. “Please don’t take this opportunity away from the kids.”
Some students have said they believe sports such as track are the “only way out” of East St. Louis for some athletes. They think that canceling this year’s track season could jeopardize the chances of some athletes to get college track scholarships.
“This is a critique on our educational system as well,” said Brittini Gray, a community organizer. “They should have felt as if their education was sufficient enough to be their way out.”
But several track team members said in interviews that sports are not their only chance to succeed after high school; they said it’s just another avenue for some students to do so.
East St. Louis School District spokeswoman Sydney Stigge-Kaufman said the students who walked out to protest last week’s decision will not be disciplined for doing so.
She said the number of student athletes who participated in the brawl is still being investigated. The students who were found to have joined in the brawl will be barred from participating in track, and from walking at graduation if they are seniors, Williams said.
The fight that led the superintendent to cancel the rest of the season started among spectators in the grandstand on Tuesday. The fight was at East St. Louis High’s Clyde C. Jordan Stadium during the opening stages of the Southwestern Conference Championship meet.
The junior varsity 3,200-meter relay, the first running event of the meet, had just ended when the altercation broke out in the stands near the finish line.
The fight quickly escalated to involve multiple groups of young spectators, who appeared to be students, punching, grabbing and shoving each other on the bleachers. As multiple security officers and East St. Louis administrators moved in, the dispute grew more heated.
At one point several members of the East St. Louis track team, clad in their bright orange track suits, rushed into the stands. Some also engaged in escalating the fight.
The East St. Louis boys program ranks second all-time in Illinois with 11 team state championships, most recently in Class 3A in 2016.
The Flyers were expected to be among the state’s top contenders for the Class 2A boys team championship May 24-26 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.