2019 recap: Bronco athletes penalized by RIIL following incident at volleyball game

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Behavior by a group of fans at a Burrillville High School girls volleyball game in September led to a controversial decision by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Principals’ Committee on Athletics to put Bronco athletes on probation for one year, in one of the town’s most debated stories of 2019.

The incident took place at a home match against Central Falls, where student fans were donning American flags as part of a “theme night”. A coach and parents from the opposing team alleged that behavior by the group was intimidating and racist following the game, calling on RIIL to investigate.

Central Falls Supt. Stephanie Downey Toledo released a statement, saying that the event was not an isolated incident.

Burrillville Supt. Michael Sollitto vowed to investigate what happened, while the Rhode Island Soccer Association publicly called on RIIL to suspend all Burrillville sports for one year.

In early October, Sollitto sent a letter to parents stating that “any representative” of Burrillville High School, “found to be making inappropriate comments” toward opposing players on any team,  had “faced disciplinary action.” He asked that parents refrain from commentary on social media, and declined to further comment on the issue.

On Friday, Oct. 11 RIIL issued a statement on the incident saying that behavior by the Burrillville students at the game was “unsportsmanlike,” and listing penalties, including prohibiting students from attending the next home girls volleyball match. In addition to the one year probation, all future game themes would require approval by the Burrillville High School administration, and administrators and additional game supervisors would need to be present at all remaining home games.

Parents and others in the community condemned the decision, noting that the Burrillville athletes were being punished for the actions of fans. They pointed out that videos of the match shared on social media showed no evidence of inappropriate behavior.

The Burrillville Town Council also weighed in, calling on school officials to appeal the decision.

The Burrillville School Committee responded in a statement that while they would not appeal RIIL’s decision, they would send a formal letter to RIIL Executive Director Thomas Mezzanotte requesting a review of the organization’s rules for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The community, meanwhile, showed support for the students with hats, t-shirts and bumper stickers marked #Burrillvillestrong, and an online petition demanding the School Committee appeal the decision garnered 1,145 signatures.

At a meeting of the Principal Committee on Athletics in November, members voted unanimously to uphold the decision to penalize the students. Sollitto and High School Principal Michael Whaley, who both serve on the committee, abstained from the vote

The girls’ volleyball team responded with a great season, finishing with a record of 31 wins, 3 loses.

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