Fairfax County Public Schools says it plans to launch a third-party investigation after a high school cheerleading coach received an anonymous email with racist and hate-filled language in March.
The email, obtained by WTOP, was sent to Oakton High School cheerleading coach Jillian Domenech at the end of March. The writer said they were speaking on behalf of many parents and students and that “many of us would not feel comfortable with another colored individual coaching cheerleading,” a reference to former coaches, including Faith Dabrio, who said she coached the team from August to November 2022.
The email says the school and history of cheer coaches have been predominantly white and that “many of the girls were shocked to see another coach last season with such dark and strong features.”
In a letter to the school community last week, Oakton High School Principal Jamie Lane said that the school system’s technology staff tried to identify the sender but was unsuccessful. Fairfax County police consider the act a bias incident, but a spokesman told WTOP that there is no criminal activity and no law was broken.
Police were similarly unable to trace where the email originated and were only notified of the incident two weeks ago, the spokesman said.
Virginia’s largest school system says the independent third-party investigator will “delve further into this matter.” It comes at a time when hate and bias incidents are on the rise in some places, such as nearby Montgomery County in Maryland. Fairfax County Public Schools does not currently record data regarding hate and bias incidents, according to a Freedom of Information Act request, but is working to begin tracking them for the 2023-24 school year.
Montgomery County Public Schools, a school system of comparable size, has been tracking such incidents for years and has data dating back to fiscal 2018, a spokeswoman said. There, Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the county is experiencing an average of one hate incident per day, triple the number it reported compared to previous years and before the coronavirus pandemic.
Dabrio, the former coach, said she learned about the letter from a parent last week. The parent discussed a letter the principal sent to the cheer community and then sent Dabrio the anonymous email. The email mentions Dabrio by name, explaining, “She was very nice and spoke professionally at all times but culturally she and the coach before her I was told were not a good fit for Oakton and they both were of an African American decent.”
Dabrio said she cried after reading the full email.
“My skin color has nothing to do with how I do my job,” Dabrio said.
Dabrio said her conversation with the parent was the first time she learned about the email. The school’s athletic director contacted her last Friday and left a voicemail, explaining there was an email “going around with my name in it.” The athletic director concluded the voice message by asking Dabrio how she felt about the situation, Dabrio said.
“You want to know how I feel about the situation, when you’ve known about the situation for over a month,” Dabrio said of the voicemail. “And you didn’t take responsibility for it. I had to find out from a third party, not the direct source of this incident.”
Dabrio said she hasn’t spoken to anyone from the school since listening to that voicemail.
The Oakton High cheer team, Dabrio said, has about 23 girls and one boy. She described the culture of the team as “great” and “welcoming,” but said school administrators didn’t support her in handling what she characterized as “drama” within the program. The drama didn’t rise to the level of hate outlined in the anonymous email, she said.
“There was internal drama,” Dabrio said. “I wish that, if the administration had stepped up to help, we would have had a better outcome as the season progressed.”
A social media threat that occurred toward the end of the season, coupled with the departure of another cheerleading coach, ultimately prompted Dabrio to step down.
A student who was injured and on the sideline took a picture of Dabrio speaking to another athlete and posted it on the social media site Snapchat with the statement “that she was going to beat me up.” When another team member showed the post to Dabrio, she told the athletic director, who was on site. The lone consequence, Dabrio said, was, “She was just ejected from the game, and there was no further follow up to that incident.”
“I feel unprotected, because you wrote this about me,” Dabrio said. “I was with your kids for this amount of time. And you felt this way this whole time.”
Asked about the administration’s response to that incident, and the delay in contacting Dabrio about the letter, a school system spokeswoman said in a statement, “FCPS works hard each day to create a school environment where all students and staff are valued and feel accepted and supported. We condemn all hateful behavior.”
In response to the anonymous email, Lane, the Oakton principal, sent an email to the school’s cheerleading community. The only way to address acts of hate and racism, she wrote “are to call them out and to reaffirm that there is no place for these beliefs in our school.”
Lane invited any cheer family members or cheerleaders to an optional meeting on May 2. A source familiar with the cheerleading team, who requested anonymity to speak about private conversations, said outside of administrators, the meeting was sparsely attended, with about 20 people in the room. During that meeting, Lane announced plans for an investigation but didn’t disclose details.
The team is currently out of season, with no organized events planned, and Domenech, the current coach, was horrified at the hateful email’s contents, the source said.
On May 8, Lane sent a message to the entire school community, detailing the recent meeting with the team and expressing that the school “stands united against all forms of hate, racism, and discrimination. The cheer team parents, and student athletes stand 100% with this sentiment.”
In a statement, the Fairfax County NAACP urged the school system to take action to assure the safety of the cheer team, pointing out that after two months, “FCPS is no closer to ascertaining the identity of the email’s author.”
“The more time that passes where children are subjected to a threat of unknown origin and unknown magnitude, the greater the danger to their physical and emotional well-being,” the statement said.