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Clear message needed; After second report of racist language, schools must examine their efforts

For the second time this school year, Erie County educators have had to respond to reports of sports teams using racial slurs against their opponents. In each case, the school first Kenmore East, now Clarence Middle School -- responded swiftly, but we wonder if school districts around the region are doing enough proactively to put their students on notice about the nature of, and the district's intolerance for, racist comments.

If not, they need to step up. This is a lesson that needs routine reinforcement.

The incident involving the Clarence Middle School girls lacrosse team reportedly occurred last Friday and is, in fact, in some dispute. But school officials who investigated found enough evidence to act, which they did, suspending the team from competition for four games.

The allegations were raised by three parents of players on the opposing team, from Sweet Home. The two black players on the team and two biracial players were reportedly called the N-word during the game, Jeanmarie Mitchell told The Buffalo News on Monday. Mitchell wasn't at the game but said her daughter, an eighth-grader on the team who is biracial, was very upset when she told her mother about the racial slurs.

It has happened before. Last December, leaders in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District also responded swiftly after an incident in which the Kenmore East girls varsity basketball team began a racist pregame chant that had become some kind of warped tradition. The team's only African-American player complained, and the district responded in multiple ways, including suspensions and cancellation of a field trip.

These things matter. It is a wounding thing for anyone to be treated as less than human, but the country's terrible history of racism against African-Americans makes the N-word an especially reprehensible verbal assault.

Teenagers are, by definition, immature, of course, and it is likely that some or all of them were just acting out. But that doesn't make this kind of offense any more tolerable.

Any district that didn't act after the December incident in Ken-Ton should use this latest unfortunate event to underscore to their students the range of possible responses if athletes, or any students, engage in this kind of talk during school events. Letters, emails and student assemblies could all be useful avenues of communication.

Similarly, parents should make sure their children understand the rules and the reasons for them. And students themselves should ensure that their teammates know they don't want to hear talk that is meant to demean and that will result in penalties against the entire team.

This has happened twice now in five months. It shouldn't have to occur a third time before all schools send a clear message to their students.