A Wisconsin high school has apologized and launched an investigation after a group of students flashed posters during a recent basketball game that appeared to show a rival athlete in blackface.
The group of Port Washington High School students enlarged a photo of Nicolet High School standout Jalen Johnson wearing a charcoal skin-care mask, according to a statement from Port Washington on Thursday. Many have said the students' actions had racist overtones.
Eric Burke, the school's principal, released an apology Thursday, condemning the students' behavior and saying the signs "can be viewed as harmful and hateful."
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“It is also extremely disappointing that a parent was involved in printing the signs," Burke said. "Even if nothing bad was intended, the conduct sends a bad message, intended or not. We, at the Port Washington-Saukville School District, teach acceptance and respect, and this goes against the mission of our district to educate all students on the importance and value of respecting others."
One Port Washington student has been suspended, and the school is working to determine whether "other appropriate consequences are needed," Burke said.
The school's statement did not explain the students' motivation behind using the photo.
Dr. Robert Kobylski, superintendent for the Nicolet School District, said he couldn't say whether the students from the rival school were using the photo as "a harmless skin-care prank or a more deeply troubling, racially motivated scenario."
"I can attest, however, to the fact that Jalen is more than a tremendous athlete: he is a fine, upstanding young man and deserves to be treated with respect and courtesy by all students and people, no matter what bench they are rooting for," Kobylski said in a statement Thursday.
The student-athlete has been ranked the third-best college prospect in the 2020 class by ESPN. He has received scholarship offers from more than 20 schools, including Duke University and the University of Kentucky, according to ESPN's recruiting site.
The teenager has not spoken publicly about the incident, but he did retweet a statement from his older brother, Rod Johnson.
"I really don't want to believe it was an act of racism, I wanna believe it was an act of distraction and trying to throw him off his game," the tweet said. "With that being said, I come from Wisconsin and I know how some of the people go about their business and the racism that happens."
Rod Johnson asked for a formal apology from the students and said that an explanation to the intent of the photo "would give a sense of clarity."
Doha Madani is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.