Some students at a New York high school don't see anything offensive
Others are outraged that the school allowed such a skit to take place
The superintendent doesn't believe the students were intentionally malicious
A photo of the skit posted on CNN's iReport went viral
It was a homecoming rally to cheer on the Waverly Wolverines football team. They were undefeated this year. Everyone was proud.
Then, in the midst of the cheers and a sea of red and white pom poms came a 30-second skit that, for some, turned an afternoon of school pride into one of shame.
Three white male students involved in the skit made light of domestic violence, and they did it in racist manner, say some.
Two were in blackface as they re-enacted a 2009 domestic abuse incident in which singer Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna. The student who played Brown was vying for the school’s “Mr. Waverly” title – a school tradition in which skits are performed and the one that garners the most applause wins the title.
On Monday, Waverly alum Matthew Dishler posted a photograph of the skit on CNN’s iReport. He says someone shared the image on Facebook.
The photo went viral.
By Tuesday afternoon, the CNN iReport had more than 46,000 views and showed up on Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Gawker and in local newspapers.
Suddenly, Waverly High School became synonymous with racism and sexism.
Twitter lit up with comments about the skit. Many were critical, but some defended the skit.
“I don’t think it was offensive at all,” said Chelsea House, who earned her high school diploma from Waverly last year and moved to Alabama but returned for homecoming last week and saw the skit.
“There’s nothing wrong with blackface. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as a black person. Black is but a color,” House said.
Waverly Central School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich said Tuesday that he did not believe the students in the skit intended to offend anyone.
Waverly resident Thomas Rumpff, a 2007 graduate of the high school, said he believed most of the kids were unaware of the historical context of blackface, a form of theatrical makeup used by white people in minstrel shows that perpetuated racist stereotypes of African-Americans.
Rumpff said the Rihanna incident had also been satirized online and on television before.
“Was this a little bit inappropriate? Yes,” he said. But said the incident “has been completely blown out of proportion.”
Other incidents of blackface have surfaced this year, including a Colorado Springs second-grader who offended a teacher when he painted his face black to resemble the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Waverly High skit was approved by school officials before it was performed, Yelich said. He acknowledged the problem and said he was speaking with students, teachers and staff at the school in the coming days.
“My concern is to start making something teachable out of this particular circumstance,” he said.
The desire to win likely fuels outrageous behavior, said Fran Bialy, assistant director of A New Hope Center, an agency that aids victims of rape, domestic violence, assault and hate crimes.
Other skits at the pep rally involved Tarzan and a dairy farmer milking his cows. Last year, a student played Tiger Woods, also in blackface.”I have heard about blackface, but … they’re portraying Hollywood events,” alum Ryan Bronson said. “It would be the same thing if he bought a mask.”
Bottom line, Bronson said: People are being too sensitive.
“They go crazy about every little thing,” he said. “The school and everybody are going to basically stop letting kids be kids.”
Dishler said he posted the image not to cast a harsh light on anyone but to prod the school to do better with issues of diversity.
“I don’t believe the kids really knew what they were doing is as offensive as it is,” Dishler said. “The administration was watching this go on, and they let it happen.”
Alum Vlad Chituc also blamed school officials.
He said Waverly, a small town off Interstate 86 just west of Binghamton, New York, could easily be seen as a place that affirmed stereotypes of all sorts.
Of Waverly’s 4,444 people, 4,312 were white, according to 2010 census data.
Chituc said he was “extraordinarily offended” by the skit and ashamed that his school seemed to be OK with it.
“On the one hand, I can’t blame the kids for being ignorant,” Chituc said. “It’s a small town, and the kids don’t know any better. It’s the responsibility of the administration to let the kids know this is not how you behave in 21st-century America. … They’ve been failing at that spectacularly.
“The administration should be creating an environment where minorities are welcome, not the butts of racist jokes that make light of domestic violence.”
Chituc contacted Waverly High School Principal Kim Forero by e-mail.
He sent CNN Forero’s response, which read in part:
“Thank you for your concerns. We will continue to address issues of diversity and respect for all. The format of pep rally will need to be reconsidered. I appreciate your concern for your alma mater.”
Yelich, for his part, said he could see how the skit could have been misconstrued and that he intends to set clearer expectations for behavior.
“I have some opportunities here to make positive change,” he said.
CNN was not able to obtain the names of the students involved in the skit.
Whatever their intentions were, one thing was clear: Their portrayals of Chris Brown and Rihanna fell short – the kid who played the dairy farmer was crowned Mr. Waverly.
CNN’s Katie Hawkins-Gaar contributed to this report.