As the situation surrounding the Academic Magnet High School football team's watermelon ritual escalated, former Charleston schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley's first instinct wasn't to fire the head football coach.
Instead, she thought that a reprimand and diversity training for Coach Bud Walpole and his assistant coaches might have been enough to address the team's watermelon-smashing ritual that some saw as perpetuating racial stereotypes demeaning to African Americans.
"How strongly do you feel about firing the coaches?" McGinley asked in an email to associate Superintendent Lou Martin and diversity consultant Kevin Clayton. "Would a letter of reprimand and probation be enough to get their attention? And, require them to attend training as well. Just my thoughts."
Emails The Post and Courier obtained through the Freedom of Information Act regarding the Academic Magnet football team reveal the divide among Charleston County school officials and School Board members over what action should have been taken regarding the football team's controversial tradition.
Martin fired Walpole from his coaching duties on Oct. 20. McGinley rehired him two days later after football players and their parents rallied in his defense. The School Board voted to accept McGinley's resignation eight days after the coach was rehired amid mounting tension from parents over how school officials questioned the players, while the black community denounced the team's actions.
The emails begin on Oct. 13 with School Board member Michael Miller's initial report of the team's ritual in which he said he had learned the team made "ape or monkey" noises while smashing a watermelon.
The emails show an immediate division between school officials and Miller over the nature of the team's actions and how to handle the situation.
Academic Magnet Principal Judith Peterson, in an email less than 24 hours after Miller's report, acknowledged the potential "ramifications" of the team's actions, but said she believed "it was an innocent action that became superstition." Peterson, in an attached memo, recommended meeting with the team and coaches the next day to tell them to halt the ritual, a move McGinley supported in a corresponding email.
But Miller, in an email to McGinley, pressed for a deeper inquiry.
"There seems to be no remedy or accountability to what transpired," he wrote.
In an interview, Miller said, at the time he was concerned the district wasn't pushing for the "truth."
Two days later Martin and Clayton interviewed the football team and their coaches. That investigation revealed new details about the ritual, including that caricature faces had been drawn on the watermelons, which had been named for a historically black high school.
Martin, in an email on Oct. 17, recommended firing the coaches. That's when McGinley questioned whether firing the coaches was really necessary. Martin, in a response to McGinley, accepted her suggestion to limit the coaches' punishment to a reprimand, but Clayton in a separate email said he felt Walpole should be fired "because of his contempt and arrogance ... during the interview."
There are no emails that provide any insight into how McGinley arrived at supporting Walpole's firing. McGinley, in an email to The Post and Courier, declined to comment further on the matter.
There were very few emails from School Board members other than Miller among those released by the school district. It's unclear if any other board members were aware of the district's investigation into the ritual, although some have said they didn't know until McGinley briefed them in an executive session on Oct. 21 after Walpole had been fired.
After Walpole's dismissal, Miller again dominated the correspondence among board members and district staff. In one email on Oct. 20, Miller felt the district hadn't gone far enough in holding the players and assistant coaches accountable. He then wrote about his dissatisfaction after McGinley reappointed Walpole on Oct. 22.
"If we can agree that something was inappropriate, what message have we sent by reinstating the coach and holding no one accountable?" Miller wrote.
School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, in a response to Miller's email urged him to consider using Clayton's diversity program as a way to address any issues of racial insensitivity in the school district.
"Your job as a board member is leadership - shaping the future," Coats wrote. "Do you want to be in the punishment business or the prevention business?"
Coats in an interview said at that point she wanted the School Board to move forward, rather than dwelling on the fate of the coach. "I felt like 'are we here simply to find issues and punish people or are we here to make sure these incidents don't happen?'" Coats said. "The ultimate question was is this a teachable moment or a punishable moment?"
Two months later, Miller said he agrees that students should be taught about how to show dignity and respect to their peers, but more importantly a stand needs to be taken against intolerance.
"I think the end goal is to make sure we recognize issues like this or even issues similar to this as a district and that they should not be tolerated," he said. "How we get to that point I don't know?"
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.