New Prague students accused of flashing white supremacist gesture in stands at hockey game

The Minnesota State High School League says students from New Prague attending the high school boys hockey state tournament in St. Paul were caught on camera Wednesday night flashing a hand gesture linked to white supremacy.

It's the latest in a series of racist incidents involving New Prague students or fans at sporting events — incidents that previously caused two Twin Cities-area schools to say they won't play New Prague teams.

Screenshots from the TV broadcast of Wednesday's New Prague-Hermantown game, circulated online, show the students making the "OK" hand gesture behind the New Prague bench.

That gesture has been adopted by white supremacists in recent years. In 2019, NPR reported, the Anti-Defamation League classified it as a hate symbol.

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The MSHSL said after the gestures were caught on camera, its officials immediately contacted New Prague school administrators who were at the game.

In a statement after the game, New Prague school district officials said the incident involved two upper elementary students. The district said administrators addressed the incident as soon as they were made aware of the gestures, and that "when questioned, the students did not understand what the signal meant. They were mimicking something they saw at an earlier hockey game on the big screen."

District officials acknowledged that they know the gestures are "upsetting to many," and they "have no reason to believe [the students] knew it could signify white supremacy."

But it follows other incidents, including a girls' basketball game in New Prague where fans reportedly made racist comments toward visiting Robbinsdale Cooper players. New Prague boys' hockey players were accused of racist taunts during a game against St. Louis Park the same day.

In the wake of those incidents last month, officials with the St. Louis Park district and Robbinsdale Cooper said they were canceling future sporting events with New Prague.

“I will not tolerate or allow our students to further experience any racism while participating in athletics against New Prague High School,” St. Louis Park athletic director Andrew Ewald wrote in a letter to New Prague officials. “I will not stand for your community and students to have teachable moments at the expense of our students.”

At that time, New Prague Superintendent Tim Dittberner issued a statement to MPR News in which he acknowledged the incident at the hockey game and apologized for it.

“We do not tolerate racist or hate speech by students or athletic players. We know the hurt this causes. The incident was dealt with immediately. We sincerely apologize for this incident and make no excuses for the behavior,” Dittberner said.

He said his school was working with students, staff and coaches so “these types of incidents do not happen in the future.”

Earlier this week, MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens told a Minnesota House committee that the league won’t tolerate racial taunts, player threats or other outbursts. Martens said a model code of conduct for schools and a student conference around upholding a welcoming environment are in the works.

“Certainly we want great participation by our student fans especially, as well as our community fans. But when it comes to addressing individual players or cheering against another team or certainly going toward anything that is inappropriate or would be viewed as offensive, we need to clean that up," he said.

Martens said the league is involved in supporting students who've been subject to harassment, and ensuring consequences are taken against instigators.

In a statement posted online after Wednesday night's hockey game, the league said it "condemns all actions that are intended to cause racial harm in any way and continues to work directly with member schools to best represent the mission and beliefs of the MSHSL."