Bill to curb hate speech, racist and ethnic slurs in Virginia high school sports dies

After several allegations of racial slurs and spitting at high school football games in Northern Virginia, State Sen. Adam Ebbin, a Democrat representing portions of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, looked for a way to stop the ugliness.

Ebbin introduced a bill that would require each high school — its athletes, their parents, coaches and referees — to abide by rules and training aimed at reducing hate speech and ethnically or racially insensitive remarks during sporting events.

But on Thursday, Ebbin’s Senate Bill 285 died in the Education Committee, on a vote of 7-8.

“It’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” Ebbin told WTOP after the vote.

In an effort to get the bill out of committee, Ebbin removed the portion of the bill that would have required parents to be part of the training, and agree to the standards that athletes, their coaches and referees would be obliged to follow.

“I trimmed it back in an attempt to get it passed,” Ebbin said of the failed effort.

Asked why those who voted against the bill wouldn’t want parents in the equation, he said: “They just didn’t want it to be as onerous.”

Sen. Janet Howell, a Democrat who represents portions of Fairfax and Arlington counties, described the problem at several high school sporting events: “Horrible behavior, using the N-word … spitting on opponents,” she fumed.

While supporting the need for a solution, Howell voted no on the watered-down legislation.

“This is a really important bill, and it has been pretty much emasculated already,” she said. “A message needs to be sent, not only to the students, but their parents, who are often enablers, that this is totally unacceptable.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat representing portions of Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax, opposed the bill, said the issue should be handled by the Virginia High School League (VHSL), the governing body for high school sports.

“We’re not going to get involved in the legislature, telling people how to coach the kids or how they should be trained. We’re going to leave that to the coaches,” Petersen said, before casting a no vote.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican who represents Henrico County, said she “100% agrees with the intent” of the bill, but agreed with Petersen that the VHSL should make the call.

“I think that the governing body is the one that should be making the decision and having the hard line, instead of everything having to be legislated,” Dunnavant said.

Asked if he intended to try again in the next session, Ebbin told WTOP that the VHSL has been taking the initiative in curbing the hate speech at its events.

“They’re doing some voluntary webinars to deal with racism. I just want to make sure the kids who need it see it, since some may not be volunteering to be part of it,” Ebbin said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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