COVINGTON, Ky. — The Diocese of Covington proclaimed Wednesday that Covington Catholic High School students recorded on viral videos during a school trip to Washington, D.C., did nothing wrong after releasing a report prepared by a private investigation firm.
Attorneys for the diocese hired Greater Cincinnati Investigation to look into the incident after videos posted online showed CovCath students who were in Washington for the March for Life rally encountering demonstrators from the Indigenous People’s March. In one video that first went viral, CovCath student Nick Sandmann, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, was shown in a close encounter with Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, who was beating a drum and chanting.
The school and its students were criticized by online commenters who perceived the students as acting disrespectfully and racist. Others labeled Phillips a troublemaker and claimed that he was trying to intimidate the students, who were innocent.
Four licensed investigators from the firm interviewed 43 CovCath students, nine faculty chaperones and four parent chaperones; sought out third-party witnesses; and reviewed social media posts, news articles and videos. They said they spent about 240 man hours on the investigation.
Investigators reported that they were unable to obtain surveillance video from the Lincoln Memorial. Sandmann offered a written statement, rather than an in-person interview. A person who posted several videos online didn't respond to them. Neither has Phillips, despite investigators showing up at his home and leaving a note.
According to the investigators' report:
- Nine chaperones were with the students at the Lincoln Memorial "when the main interactions took place."
- Black Hebrew Israelite street preachers were shouting offensive statements at anyone who passed by, including the students.
- Some students said one of the chapersones threatened them with detention if they talked to the street preachers. But they were allowed to do some chants used by student fans during school sports games.
- Investigators said they found no evidence that students responded with offensive or racist statements to the street preachers. They also said they found no evidence that students chanted "build the wall."
- Most of the students told investigators that they felt like Phillips was approaching their group to join in their cheers. None said they felt threatened. Some said they were "confused."
- The chaperones also told investigators that they didn't feel the students were threatened by Phillips or his group.
- Investigators said they found no evidence of offensive or racist statements by students to Phillips or his group, but noted that some students performed a "tomahawk chop" to the drum beat and chanted.
- After the interaction between Sandmann and Phillips ended, most of the students told investigators that they turned their attention back to the street preachers. Chaperones moved students soon after, telling them the buses had arrived even though they hadn't yet.
- One student was stopped by a uniformed police officer for running as they were leaving the area. The officer told the student not to run at the Lincoln Memorial.
- In another video posted online, someone could be heard saying, "It's not rape if you enjoy it." Investigtors said they concluced that the speaker was not a Covington Catholic student, and claimed that longer videos show a person stating "He does not go to CovCath" almost immediately after the comment was made.
- Another video showed a group of boys making comments to two women as they walked by. A person who posted it online claimed that the boys were CovCath students. Investigators said they couldn't confirm whether they were from CovCath or not.
- Students and chaperones told investigators that "few, if any" of the students had MAGA hats when they left Covington Catholic for Washington, D.C. Most of the students purchased the hats before, during or after the March for Life.
- Some chaperones said that students had also purchased "Hope" hats in support of President Barack Obama on previous trips.
- Investigators said they found no evidence of a school policy prohibiting political apparel on school-sponsored trips.
In a letter to CovCath parents, Bishop Roger Foys wrote that the investigation "has demonstrated that our students did not instigate the incident that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial."
"I am pleased to inform you that my hope and expectation ... that the results of our inquiry ... would 'exonerate our students so that they can move forward with their lives' has been realized," Foys wrote.
Despite the initiation perception by many people online, the students actually "were placed in a situation that was at once bizarre and even threatening," Foys wrote. "Their reaction to the situation was, given the circumstances, expected and one might even say laudatory."