CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Charleston County School District Superintendent Nancy McGinley commented on the recent removal of Bud Walpole as head football coach of Academic Magnet High School following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate post game celebrations.
McGinley said the decision followed an investigation into a "watermelon ritual with students making monkey sounds" that football team members celebrated after recent victories. A board member came forward with concerns after learning of the ritual and notified CCSD officials, McGinley said.
"This board member was clearly concerned about racial stereotypes related to this type of ritual," McGinley said. McGinley stated she immediately contacted the principal who interviewed the coaches and reported they said they were aware of the ritual but "did not observe cultural insensitivity."
"The tone of the report that was given to me implied that this was an innocent ritual and that the coaches had no concerns about the potentially racially-insensitive tones or perception," McGinley said. "However, based upon the information that I heard from the report from the board member, stating specifically that the team goes through a 'tribal-like chant that is animalistic or monkey-like,' I asked that we have further investigation by speaking to a cross-section of the team or the full team."
Students were individually interviewed about the ritual on Oct. 16, McGinley said.
Following those interviews, McGinley said they decided, accountability lies with the adults.The ritual occurred on four or five occasions based on a concept initiated by upperclassmen prior to the game against Military Magnet, McGinley said to a room of reporters and concerned parents.
"Players would gather in a circle and smash the watermelon while others were either standing in a group or locking arms and making chanting sounds described as, 'Ooh, ooh, ooh,'" McGinley said. Each time, the watermelon was decorated with what McGinley described as a caricature by a student using a Sharpie marker.
McGinley said the ritual continued until last week, when the principal agreed the ritual should not happen again.
"Based upon interviews with 29 students and the head coach and two assistant coaches, it was our conclusion that the accountability lies with the adults. That the perceptions and the practices that were part of this ritual were not something that the adults should have sanctioned, and therefore, we took action," she said.
Walpole was relieved of all coaching duties, including basketball, district officials say.
Officials say Andrew Rusciolelli will serve as interim head football coach, with Steven Kamp and Gary Weart serving as assistants for the remaining two games of the 2014 season.
Charleston County Schools first confirmed Monday evening Walpole was no longer with the football team, but did not provide a reason for the move.
Walpole was in the middle of his 10th year as the school's football coach and it was one of the most successful so far. It's been a season that has seen the Raptors put together a 6-2 record; those six wins are tied for the most in school history. He had put together a record of 29-70. But the last three seasons, things have really turned around for the Raptors as they've gone 15-14.
Walpole is a physical education teacher at Liberty Hill, according to CCSD Executive Director Erica Taylor.
The post-game tradition reportedly began after wins this season. After winning their first game of the season back in September, the team smashed a watermelon in celebration. After winning their next game they began a tradition of smashing a watermelon and eating it after each win which continued for the team's 6 game win streak.
Mike Miller, who's a member of the school board in Charleston, said a parent from an opposing school came to him and complained that monkey sounds were being made during the watermelon smashing.
In an email on Monday night, a current Raptors player said the tradition started when some players bought a watermelon off a man selling them from the back of his truck on the way to a game. The team decided they would eat it if they won their game against Military Magnet. After the victory they smashed it open since the team didn't have a knife on the sideline.
"Coach Bud Walpole has been nothing but a caring supportive man to this team, even when we get absolutely destroyed on the football field, he only had positive and upbeat words for us during practice," the player said of his now-former coach.
A parent of a player, a former player and an Academic Magnet student all said they stood behind Coach Walpole. They each said on Thursday of last week, members of the Charleston school board went to the school and held meetings with the players on the football team for more than three hours. The team was asked whether the watermelon ritual had any racial undertones, which the kids denied.
Walpole was allowed to travel with the team to their game against Whale Branch last Friday, which they lost, but was told Monday that he was being relieved. The team members met with McGinley later in the day and asked why their coach was fired. But they say they were not given a straight answer with one source saying McGinley told them the decision was "above [their] pay grade".
calling for Walpole to be reinstated as the head coach has already climbed to over 3,000 signatures.
"My focus right now is to help the players and coaches in any way I can. All matters concerning Bud Walpole are personnel matters and as such will not be commented on," Academic Magnet Athletic Director Curt Hoffman said in a text message sent on Tuesday morning.
Attempts to reach Walpole have been unsuccessful.