COVINGTON, Ky. — An independent investigation into the interaction last month between Covington high school students and a Native American man has exonerated the students, the Diocese of Covington has announced.
In a Feb. 11 message to Covington Catholic High School parents, posted on the diocesan website, Bishop Roger Foys said a third-party inquiry had determined that “our students did not instigate the incident that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial.”
“In truth, taking everything into account, our students were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening,” he said. “Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory.”
The investigation’s report was released nearly a month after controversy first erupted following video emerging on Twitter showing a confrontation between a Native American elderly man with a drum — later identified as activist Nathan Phillips — and a group of students from Covington Catholic High School.
The incident took place as the students were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial to meet their bus on their way home from the March for Life in Washington, D.C.
A team of investigators, which Bishop Foys said “has no connection with Covington Catholic High School or the Diocese of Covington” reviewed 50 hours of internet activity, interviewed 43 students and 13 chaperones, and attempted repeatedly to contact Phillips through multiple venues, with no response.
As the students arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, they encountered Black Hebrew Israelites, who were yelling offensive statements at anyone who walked by, the report found. “We see no evidence that students responded with any offensive or racist statements of their own.”
“Some of the students asked the chaperones if they could do their school cheers to help drown out the Black Hebrew Israelites,” the investigators said. However, they added that they did not find evidence that any students chanted “Build the Wall.”
Phillips then approached the students, the report said. Most of the students thought he was coming to join in their cheers, and many said they were confused by what he was doing, but none felt threatened.
“We found no evidence of offensive or racist statements by students to Mr. Phillips or members of his group. Some students performed a ‘tomahawk chop’ to the beat of Mr. Phillips’ drumming and some joined in Mr. Phillips’ chant.”
The investigators concluded that the statements they had obtained from students and chaperones were “remarkably consistent,” both with one another and the video footage reviewed. In contrast, they said, “Mr. Phillips’ public interviews contain some inconsistencies, and we have not been able to resolve them or verify his comments,” due to their inability to get in touch with him.
Controversy over the Jan. 18 encounter began after footage posted online showed one student, a junior at Covington, standing in close proximity to Phillips with an uncomfortable expression on his face while the students around him chant and do the “tomahawk chop.”
As the video went viral, it was roundly condemned by media commenters and some Catholic leaders as racist and antagonistic on the part of the students. However, more footage was subsequently released, showing the Black Israelites, and also appearing to show Phillips approaching the students, which contradicted prior reports that the students had surrounded him.
The Covington diocese and high school had initially responded to the incident by saying the students’ behavior was “opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
As additional information emerged, the Diocese of Covington removed its initial statement and released a new one on Monday, Jan. 22, announcing both the temporary closing of Covington Catholic High School and a third-party investigation into the events at the Lincoln Memorial.
In his Feb. 11 letter, Bishop Foys voiced hope that the students can now move forward with their lives and education.
“These students had come to Washington, D.C. to support life. They marched peacefully with hundreds of thousands of others — young and old and in-between — to further the cause of life … Their stance there was surely a pro-life stance. I commend them.”