‘Racism at Westlake’: Athletes report offensive behaviors within powerhouse program

Investigations
Investigative Summary:

Students at Westlake High School share their experiences with racism, both in class and on the athletic field. Meanwhile, the group that oversees high school sports says it hasn’t received any reports of racism.

Read Part One: ‘Racism at Westlake’: Students share stories of pain through high school

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some students and alumni at Westlake High School in the Eanes Independent School District say they’re exhausted, fed up with what they call “a culture of racism.”

They say it’s prominent on the athletic field, where athletes of color told KXAN they hear derogatory and insensitive racial slurs being casually used in everyday conversation.

The juxtoposition of race and sports has been particularly prominent in the United States in recent years, as the nation has divided over controversial topics like kneeling during the National Anthem to raise awareness of the issue of police brutality against Black lives.

Students of color at WHS want to spark their own conversations toward their plight.

KXAN interviewed eight current and former students — including one star athlete on the football team, one former marching band musician and one former color guard member — to ask them about their first-hand experiences of racism within the Westlake High School campus. Each one said they have either lived through, or witnessed, overt acts of racism from their classmates.

  • Zane Minors, class of 2021, plays a critical role for the Westlake Chaps football team. He said it's not uncommon to hear racial slurs casually used in the locker room. The only current student to speak to KXAN, Minors said he wants his teammates to know the impact divisive language has on people of color. Minors has committed to playing football at Yale once he graduates from Westlake. (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)
  • 18-year-old Emma Nebeker, class of 2020, shared her own experience as a Chinese-American student at Westlake High School. "I've been treated differently simply for looking different," she said. She said the current Quick Report system, which the district implemented in 2017 for students to voice their concerns, is hard to locate and is not easily accessible. A district spokesperson told KXAN it is considering a new service. (Courtesy Emma Nebeker)
  • In this photo, Jules Shelby, Westlake High School class of 2016, is seen performing in the 2014 UIL 6A State Marching Contest. A member of the color guard, Shelby was required to twirl a colorful Confederate flag. When KXAN asked about the performance, the district apologized: "We agree this performance is not acceptable, and we sincerely regret the choices that were made." (Courtesy Jules Shelby)
  • Remi Ogunsanya, Westlake Class of 2016, said her family hails from Niger, Africa. She said classmates would purposefully mispronounce the name of the country to her, intentionally substituting it for a racial slur. Ogunsanya was one of the few alumni KXAN spoke to who said she had made in-person reports to administrators about offensive behaviors from her peers. "Guidance counselors are just telling you to get through it or 'everyone goes through this or don't be so sensitive,'" Ogunsanya recalled. A year after she graduated, the district would implement a formal online reporting system tool for students. (Courtesy Remi Ogunsanya)
  • Anabelle Mahadevan, Westlake High School class of 2020, is of Filipino and Indian descent. She said she lost a sense of her own identity after her friends would repeatedly reinforce stereotypical jokes about her race. She said she would like to see more teachers of color at Westlake High School. She plans to attend Texas A&M in the fall. (Courtesy Anabelle Mahadevan)

An expectation of success

The Eanes Independent School District, and much of central Texas, expects success from the students at Westlake High School. On the football field, they are perennial contenders for the Texas state championship. Last year, the Chaps took home the title.

But even during that successful season, capped with a win at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, not everyone was completely comfortable.

Zane Minors, an incoming senior at WHS, is a key part of the Chaps offense. He’s also one of a handful of Black athletes on the roster.

He said he feels in an awkward position; he often has to hold his tongue when he hears inappropriate or insensitive comments from his teammates.

“Being one of the three Black people on the team … there’s a lot of stuff said,” Minors told KXAN.

“It’s a very emotional game, but I don’t think that gives anybody the right to be racist during that time.”

Zane Minors, Class of 2021

Minors said the n-word has been normalized at his school. Other WHS alumni have supported that claim. An entire Instagram account was recently created to shed light on years’ worth of racist allegations from classmates, teachers and administrators.

“It’s appalling that it’s thrown around so casually,” Minors said.

Also on the field, other students, past and present, shared their own feelings of hurt.

Remi Ogunsanya and Jules Shelby, former members of the Westlake marching band and color guard, respectively, recall a performance from 2014.

In this photo, Jules Shelby, Westlake High School class of 2016, is seen performing in the 2014 UIL 6A State Marching Contest. A member of the color guard, Shelby was required to twirl a colorful Confederate flag. When KXAN asked about the performance, the district apologized: "We agree this performance is not acceptable, and we sincerely regret the choices that were made." (Courtesy Jules Shelby)
In this photo, Jules Shelby, Westlake High School class of 2016, is seen performing in the 2014 UIL 6A State Marching Contest. (Courtesy Jules Shelby)

During the University Interscholastic League 6A state marching contest, the alumni say they were asked to twirl colorful Confederate flags and perform an old Southern song, which they say was chosen by the school, with lyrics glorifying picking cotton.

Ogunsanya said she later felt “disgusted” that the school didn’t consider the song choice and choreography to be offensive to any of the hundreds of students involved in the performance.

“I’ve never really quite forgiven myself for being a part of that,” Ogunsanya said.

Shelby told KXAN she felt uncomfortable at the time, but didn’t think expressing her feelings would actually lead to any lasting change.

“I didn’t want to say anything because … it’s the entire band. They weren’t going to listen to me or change that,” Shelby said.

Six years later, Eanes ISD told KXAN it regrets the decisions made for that competition and apologized, saying it will work to make performances more inclusive and respectful.

A district spokesperson said the rainbow flags the color guard were asked to twirl displayed school colors and were intended to signify Xs, not Confederate symbols, contradicting the memories the alumnae have.

“As we review and reflect on past events or traditions that are insensitive, offensive or in any way upsetting, we are saddened and sorry for those who may have been affected. We agree this performance is not acceptable, and we sincerely regret the choices that were made. Moving forward, we will do what we teach our students to do, and learn from our mistakes, understand their impact and work to improve. We renew our efforts to make our program and performances inclusive and respectful to all who hear and see us.”

Eanes Independent School District

No reports of racism

Officials with the University Interscholastic League, which oversees high school sports and music at the competitive level, told KXAN it doesn’t have any reports of racism from anyone over the past 10 years at Westlake High School. Students KXAN spoke to said they have issued reports to WHS coaches and teachers in the past, but rarely saw discipline administered.

They said they don’t report the offensive behaviors of their classmates for this reason.

“A lot of things get reported and they’re very serious things, in fact. But nothing seems to get done and that’s the problem,” Minors said.

“Why would I go tell a teacher if they already heard the joke and they are not saying anything about it?”

Remi Ogunsanya, Class of 2016

In the past, the UIL provided schools a sportsmanship manual before each season, asking athletes to refrain from disrespectful conduct, like offensive remarks which insult others. Coaches were given a manual too, asked to pledge to stop anything that wouldn’t reflect well on the school or program.

KXAN discovered the UIL stopped distributing those manuals years ago, but it’s unclear exactly when and why. UIL officials did not provide a direct answer when asked.

Still, Eanes ISD says it is taking steps to correct these issues and address ongoing allegations.

In 2017, Eanes ISD officials asked Robert Lucero, Westlake High School head basketball coach, to become the first ever diversity coordinator at the school. He trains teachers and staff to handle ongoing issues related to racism and is available to speak to students about any problems they encounter. (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)
In 2017, Eanes ISD officials asked Robert Lucero, Westlake High School’s head basketball coach, to become the first-ever diversity coordinator at the school. He trains teachers and staff to handle ongoing issues related to racism and is available to speak to students about any complaints they have. (KXAN Photo/Alex Caprariello)

Three years ago, head basketball coach Robert Lucero was named Westlake’s first ever diversity coordinator. He’s Hispanic, which he says allows him to connect with students and athletes of color if they’re ever seeking help.

In the three years he’s had that title, Lucero said athletes have begun approaching him to share their concerns. But he says he wants to connect with the entire student body.

“Athletics get glorified, and that’s fine, but really, it’s more important that we take care of the people that aren’t in athletics,” Lucero said, referencing the fact that athletes are often widely accepted among the student body and that coaches often build solid relationships with their players.

Lucero’s outreach also extends to his own colleagues. He conducts training sessions for other Westlake teachers and staff on campus. Each year, he gathers testimonies from students of color, which he later presents to the staff. He said these under-reported testimonies help Westlake staff empathize with the struggles of minority students.

“Until I started to read and educate myself, I’m not sure I really understood all the different things students can go through,” Lucero said.

The district also recently hired an outside consultant, aiming to help coaches, teachers and staff become racially sensitive to student needs.

Looking toward the future

These three former and current Westlake students are excelling. Ogunsanya lives in Chicago and is in her second year of law school. Shelby left Central Texas after graduation and went on to attend additional schooling in Europe. And, Minors has committed to playing football in college at Yale after graduation.

But before he leaves Westlake, he hopes his story will give courage to other athletes of color who may also feel uneasy to raise their voice.

“With me being able to share this, they will actually realize that this stuff does happen to somebody they know and somebody they have been friends with. Somebody that plays football. This happens in the Westlake community,” Minors said.

Fall football

The start of the high school football season for Westlake was pushed back due to the pandemic. The Chaps begin practicing on campus beginning Sept. 8. As of mid-August, the first game of the season is scheduled for Sept. 25.

The past two seasons of WHS football games have been broadcast on KBVO, a KXAN-affiliated TV station.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austin-Travis County

More Investigations

More Investigations

Tracking the Coronavirus

Coronavirus Cases Tracker

Latest Central Texas COVID-19 Cases

Trending Stories

Don't Miss