When Darius Nwokike learned Monday that his football coach at Academic Magnet High School had been fired, he went to his computer and logged on to the website change.org.
Nwokike, a junior defensive end and the only African-American player on the Raptors' roster, started an online petition asking the Charleston County School District to reinstate coach Bud Walpole. By 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the petition had more than 2,000 signatures.
"I thought the reasons that Coach Walpole got fired were an injustice," Nwokike said Tuesday afternoon. "I was thinking that if I got enough people to agree with me and sign the petition, it would pressure the school board into giving him his job back."
At a contentious news conference Tuesday, Charleston County schools superintendent Nancy McGinley faced angry parents and said Walpole was fired after an investigation into a postgame celebration in which Raptors players smashed watermelons and made "chanting sounds."
"It was our conclusion that the accountability lies with the adults and that the perceptions and the practices that were part of this ritual were not something that the adults should have sanctioned," she said.
Walpole, the Raptors' football coach for the last 10 years, also has been removed as the school's girls basketball coach, but he will keep his job as a physical education teacher at Liberty Hill Academy.
Andrew Rusciolelli will be the Raptors' interim head football coach for the remaining two games of the season. Members of the media were kept away from the Raptors practice Tuesday as they prepared for Friday's game against Battery Creek.
Walpole said Tuesday that "he would love nothing more than to continue my coaching career at Academic Magnet" and that the players' celebration was "never intended to be offensive to anyone."
Said Walpole, "It was in celebration of winning the game. I would never condone or approve of any activity that I knew to be offensive to anyone."
McGinley said she first learned of a possible issue involving the Academic Magnet team from school board member Michael Miller on Oct. 13. Miller raised concerns about allegations the team had been participating in a "watermelon ritual with students making monkey sounds as part of a post-game celebration" following a victory against Military Magnet Academy.
Miller told The Post and Courier he received the initial complaint from a parent of a Military Magnet student "a week or two after" Military Magnet's 53-30 loss to Academic Magnet on Sept. 5 at North Charleston High School.
"I told Dr. McGinley I wasn't going to shy away from saying I was the one who brought this to the district's attention," Miller said. "If I were to do that, it would be the same as if I were participating in the actions that brought the issue to the forefront in the first place."
McGinley said she asked Academic Magnet principal Judith Peterson to look into the issue. Peterson, McGinley said, reported back that the coaches were aware of the ritual and that they "did not observe any cultural insensitivity."
McGinley said the tone of Peterson's report "implied it was an innocent ritual" and that the coaches "had no concerns about the potentially racially sensitive overtones or perceptions" of the tradition.
Despite Peterson's report, the district conducted its own investigation on Oct. 16, questioning 29 football players as well as Walpole and the assistant coaches. District Associate Superintendent Lou Martin, who oversees some of the district's middle and high schools, and Kevin Clayton, who McGinley described as an adviser for the district's diversity committee, interviewed the students over a period of several hours.
The students, McGinley said, told Martin and Clayton that the team had participated in a ritual multiple times this season where two students would smash a watermelon with a face drawn on it with a black marker, while the remainder of the team would stand in a circle around the fruit making chanting sounds. McGinley said the image on the watermelon could be considered a "caricature."
Several of the watermelons were named Bonds-Wilson, McGinley said, which is a reference to the high school's location in North Charleston on the Bonds-Wilson Campus that pays tribute to a historically black school previously on that site.
McGinley said Tuesday that she had not spoken with Walpole, nor had she spoken with any of the parents from Military Magnet who had raised concerns to Miller. She said neither the principal nor the football coach of Military Magnet had seen the ritual performed after the game on Sept. 5.
McGinley said she plans to meet with Walpole and report back to the school board, whom she briefed on the watermelon investigation in executive session Tuesday. There is no formal appeals process for Walpole to take as a coach, but McGinley said she could choose to uphold or change Walpole's status following their meeting. The school board could also choose to take action regarding Walpole's status as a coach.
Parents of both current and former students of Academic Magnet High School attended the news conference where they peppered McGinley with questions about why the students were interviewed by district officials who were strangers without their parents present. Some parents shouted that the students were coerced and scared.
Connie Biggs, president of Academic Magnet High School's athletic booster board, who doesn't have children on the football team, said the district came in like a "freight train" and took the players one by one into a room with two men they didn't know.
"They trusted you and you have the trust of all the students in the district and you're mismanaging that trust," she said.
In interviews with The Post and Courier, Walpole and Nwokike spelled out the genesis of the ritual that the players used to mark each of their victories during a 6-2 start to a season that's already one of the best in school history.
"We were just celebrating a victory," Nwokike said. "It was just something we could look forward to during the week. It really started by accident. We'd go to the Subway before games, and before the second game of the season, one of the players saw a watermelon stand. He thought it would be cool to buy one and maybe we could eat it after the game if we won.
"Well, we won and we broke the watermelon because we didn't want to wait to cut it. It was a tradition that lasted six games."
Nwokike said the players' chants were "football shouts."
"I've heard people say they were monkey chants, which is absolutely not true," Nwokike said. "They were just football shouts, like any you would hear on a football field."
Nwokike called the faces drawn on the watermelons "smiley faces."
"They were just faces, they weren't provocative at all," he said. "They were just like simple smiley faces."
Nwokike said he missed two periods of class time last week while he and his teammates were interrogated about the celebration. His mother, Barbara, is among the Academic Magnet parents advocating Walpole's reinstatement.
"He should not have missed any classes over this crazy thing here," she said. "This is nothing to waste time on. Nobody was offended on the team, and I definitely don't see it as a racist thing. When Darius came home and told me about it, I could not believe that they kept him out of class for two periods to talk about it.
"I'm really appalled that so much energy has been wasted on this, and the coach losing his position should never have happened. If somebody was offended, all they had to do was tell the boys to stop. That would have been it. The school board should definitely reinstate Coach and we should be done with this."
Walpole, 57, is a 1979 Citadel graduate who has worked at Lowcountry schools First Baptist, Middleton and for the last 10 years at Academic Magnet. He released a statement Tuesday saying "how truly sorry I am to anyone whom my actions or inactions may have offended."
"One of the things we teach our players is responsibility, and I bear ultimate responsibility for any actions our players take as a group," he said.
The father of former Raptors standout Stuart Walters Jr., now a sophomore football player at Johns Hopkins University, was among those who came to Walpole's defense.
"I don't have enough information to assess what's going on there now," said Stuart Walters Sr. "But I will tell you about Bud Walpole. My son is an African-American and we never had any problem with Bud Walpole. He's an excellent person, a good coach and I enjoyed my son playing for him for four years. And my son would say the very same thing.
"At times, my son was the only African-American on the team and we never experienced anything like that. I'm sorry to see this happen."
Former Academic Magnet player Harry Griffin posted a statement on CNN's iReport defending Walpole.
"I played for him for four years and gained so much respect for this man," wrote Griffin, now a cadet at The Citadel. "He cared so much about the players and the parents. His record at the school does not show the time and effort he put into coaching. Never in my six years of knowing Coach Walpole would I ever speak badly of him. He has so much integrity and honor. His team motto each year was 'Do the right thing.' He taught us to be better people. ... You can ask anyone that has ever met Bud Walpole if he has ever said or done anything that would cause you to think he was racist. Nobody would ever say such a thing."
Military Magnet football coach Gene Ross said he saw no watermelon celebration after his team's game against the Raptors.
"I never witnessed anything like that after our game. I have never seen anything that I am reading about after any of our games with Academic Magnet," Ross said. "Bud Walpole is a gentleman, always first-class and gracious. It hurts me to know that all of this negative stuff has cost him his job as a football coach. I have never heard Bud make a disparaging remark about anyone in all of the years that I have known him. I hope this gets resolved soon."
Gene Sapakoff and David Shelton contributed to this report.
Superintendent Nancy McGinley held a press conference Tuesday at the Charleston County School District office following Monday’s suspension of Academic Magnet High School football coach Bud Walpole.×
The celebration was “never intended to be offensive to anyone,” Coach Bud Walpole said.×
Superintendent Nancy McGinley held a news conference at the Charleston County School District office following the firing of Academic Magnet High School coach Bud Walpole.×