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Column: If readers jump to conclusions, we jump to investigate facts

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Last week a reader told The Republic that specific Columbus North students showed “disgraceful and racist conduct at the Pike vs. North game.” He was referring to the Feb. 13 boys basketball game at North.

The comments were submitted as an “onion,” the mostly anonymous opinions we publish on Page A2.

These serious allegations required further investigation, and after about an hour of research the onion was rejected. However, the issue compelled me to write this column and explain what we learned and why it was rejected.

I replied to the onion writer’s email and said The Republic wanted to know what he meant by racist behavior, a charge that needed supporting facts.

The writer responded that Pike was an all African-American team and the students from the host school dressed like the Ku Klux Klan by wearing bed sheets and white night caps.

I called our sports editor and photographer who covered the game and asked if they had seen anything like this. They both said, “No.” It made me wonder if the onion writer had misinterpreted what he saw. I sent a reply email with a long list of specific questions, including if the students looked exactly like Klansmen, with full hoods over their faces.

While waiting for a response, I called North’s athletics director, Jeff Hester. I told him I had to check on a serious allegation and read to him what the onion writer submitted and described in the subsequent email. I asked Hester if anything like this had happened. He also said, “No.”

Hester said no Pike players or coaches mentioned they were offended by anything North’s students wore or said.

He explained the student section picks a theme for every game, and the one for the Pike game was a whiteout. If you’ve attended or watched professional, college or high school sporting events, you’ve seen that fans will sometimes wear one color of T-shirt to demonstrate unified support for their team.

The colors generally reflect the team’s colors, such as black for Purdue — a blackout — or orange for Columbus East. North’s colors are blue and white.

Hester added that two students were wearing bed sheets like Roman togas.

That’s not an uncommon sight at sporting events.

However, knowing who North’s opponent was and trying to avoid anything that could be misconstrued, Hester said he talked to the students and explained how wearing the sheets could be perceived as offensive behavior. The students told him that wasn’t their intention and certainly not because of the opponent, the athletics director said. They agreed to remove their togas.

This was a teaching moment for the students, to be aware of and sensitive to people and their surroundings.

I hope this also served as a teaching moment for the onion writer.

After I had spoken with Hester, I got a reply email from the writer. He admitted the students’ costumes did not include face hoods and “for the most part act like togas.” He added that North students said they were “angels vs. the Pike Devils,” but he didn’t buy that explanation.

I replied to the writer that based on my research and his explanations, it was apparent that he had misinterpreted the students’ conduct and the onion he submitted would not be published. Let me explain why.

“Orchids and onions” are among the ways for readers to share their thoughts, just like a letter to the editor. Orchids are compliments to people and organizations for doing nice things, such as helping a motorist whose car has become stuck in the snow.

Onions are critical comments.

We have rules for publishing onions. Generally, we don’t allow personal attacks on businesses or people, although we do publish criticism of the newspaper.

We are very cautious when onions allege that individuals or businesses have done something illegal. First, we don’t use names in those cases. And second, onion writers had better have some proof to substantiate their allegations.

Sometimes onions are rejected. For example, one writer alleged “misdoings” by a specific city organization.

Another such submission was directed at a specific athletic coach for what the onion writer said was poor sportsmanship.

We offered to let the person reword it without identifying the coach by name or specific details of the alleged incident.

The Republic wants readers to share their opinions and be a forum for an exchange of thoughts and ideas. But opinions also ought to be rooted in fact.

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