Several Lincoln East High School students were suspended Wednesday for making or distributing fake "green cards" thrown onto the field after the championship soccer game against Omaha South.
"We're focusing our attention on whose mind-set this was, whose idea it was," East High Principal Sue Cassata said. "It was an egregious error. I don't even have words to describe how despicable I think that was."
Sixty percent of Omaha South's students are Latino -- and the green cards were an apparent reference to immigration status.
The incident cast a shadow over the East soccer team's 4-2 overtime victory against Omaha South on Tuesday to claim its sixth state title.
On Wednesday, about a dozen students met with counselors to discuss what could be done to apologize and educate.
Senior Lucas Hines said the group isn't trying to defend the actions of a few students but to begin to rebuild relationships.
"It goes beyond poor sportsmanship," he said. "It's a disgraceful way to act as a human, especially being a day of celebration, and their graduation."
Senior Becca Ross said she knew nothing about the green cards until she ran onto the field with a crowd of fans when the game ended.
"I looked up and saw all these green cards fluttering down," she said. "I got out as quickly as I could. I was just so completely shaken."
She told an administrator, then went back onto the field and began picking up the cards.
Cassata said administrators found out about it at the game from students who gave them the cards and told them what was going on.
East administrators told students in the three East fan sections that anyone found with a card would be ejected.
Numerous students turned in cards, Cassata said. Hines said administrators confiscated "tons" of cards and he thought it was over.
But after the game, when fans stormed the field, dozens of cards ended up on the ground at Morrison Stadium in Omaha.
One former student told administrators he threw the cards, and he apologized.
Omaha South Principal Cara Riggs said she appreciated East administrators taking the incident seriously.
"It really stings on our end," she said. "Unfortunately it's not the first time it's happened with our students."
Students don't always talk about comments they endure, so when something blatant happens, "you find it happens more than you think."
Riggs said she also realizes it's unfair to condemn the entire East population for the actions of a few.
"We know what it's like to be labeled unfairly," she said.
Cassata said administrators have interviewed 25 to 30 East students and so far have suspended fewer than five. She declined to give a specific number, but said the suspended students violated the district's student conduct rule, which prohibits language or conduct intended to be derogatory toward an individual.
Something like this hurts the entire school community, she said, feeding into stereotypes of elitism that don't accurately reflect East High.
"We are a community that celebrates and embraces diversity," she said.
East administrators have talked with administrators at Omaha South. They also have talked with students who accepted the cards, stressing they are just as culpable for condoning the actions of those distributing them, Cassata said. And, they talked to a couple of students who waved American flags because the flags hadn't been present at other soccer games.
An e-mail sent to East staff members said they should use the incident to think about what they might change to better prepare students to live in a global society.
Students in some classes have said they want to write letters of apology to Omaha South students, Cassata said.
And on Wednesday evening, the student group that met with counselors sent an electronic message to all families at East, commenting on the gravity of what happened, outlining steps the group plans to take and asking for support in their efforts.
Hines said the group plans to write letters of apology to the students and soccer team at Omaha South, to Omaha and Lincoln newspapers and to Omaha Latino community groups.
They will circulate notebooks so students can write their own messages, he said.
The group also will try to set up some exchanges or meetings with Omaha South students.
To Ross, the most important thing is to change attitudes at East that allowed something like this to happen.
"I guess racism just really gets to me," she said.
She said the students probably had no idea of the gravity of what they were doing, but such thoughtlessness is at the root of many problems.
To that end, she said, student leaders hope to talk to freshman and sophomore classes.
Associate Principal Dave Bell said he is proud of the students who want to help educate.
"That's refreshing we have kids that are willing to step up," he said.
Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.