Already under fire for racist behavior at school sporting events, New Prague students appeared to add more fuel to the blaze Wednesday, as a TV camera at the Minnesota high school hockey tournament in St. Paul caught students flashing what appeared to be a white power symbol.
But the school district said the upper-elementary students flashing the "OK" hand signal had no idea it could be interpreted as a racist gesture. And a New Prague fan sitting near the students said she believed the gestures were completely innocent, "just silly 10-year-old stuff."
"School administration addressed the situation immediately after they were made aware of the situation," New Prague Area Schools said in a statement Thursday.
"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. We have no reason to believe they knew it could signify white supremacy."
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), which runs the hockey tournament, said it had been assured that the students acted unwittingly.
After the gestures were spotted, the league said, it immediately contacted New Prague school officials who were on site at Xcel Energy Center for the game against Hermantown.
"The students were unaware of this [racist] meaning," the league said. "New Prague took action to appropriately address this behavior with the students.
"The MSHSL 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."
Recently, the St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale school districts said they would no longer play New Prague in sports after their players were subjected to racist taunts. MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens testified this week at a state House committee meeting about the league's efforts to crack down on racist behavior at sporting events.
Elizabeth Eaton of Stillwater has a nephew on the New Prague team and was at Wednesday's game. Eaton said she was sitting right behind the boys who made the gestures.
"They were doing silly 10-year-old stuff," she said. "I could hear their conversation, and there was nothing negative."
Eaton said it's frustrating that children's horseplay could be mistaken for white supremacy.
"My perspective is, they behaved very well in that environment," she said. "These parents work really, really hard to make sure their kids are contributing members of society.
"That OK sign was a positive sign, and it was co-opted by the white supremacists," she said. "I don't want a group to take over something that was a positive and make it a negative."
Rob Young, a New Prague hockey parent, said the youngsters were playing the "circle game." In that game, a person makes the "OK" gesture, and if another person looks, they get a punch in the shoulder.
Young said the taunts at recent sporting events were the actions of a single individual and don't represent the community.
"One person doesn't define a team or a community," he said.