School officials across southern Maine are working to quell taunting and unruly behavior by student fan sections at high school sporting events, behaviors that spiked when fans returned after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
"The increase of verbal attack, not cheering, but attack — whether that's singling kids out by name or number, or their hair cuts or color of their cleats — has increased," Freeport High School athletic director Craig Sickels told the Portland Press Herald. "It's definitely something that escalated post-COVID."
The latest response to disorderly behavior at high school events came from Portland Public Schools, which sent a letter to parents Friday informing them that "Portland High students can only attend Portland High games, and Deering High students can only attend Deering High games." Casco Bay High students may attend events at whichever school they compete for in athletics or at any game with a legal guardian.
The policy, which took effect Monday, came in the wake of "a few incidents of verbal and physical altercations at and after sporting events involving spectators," according to the two-paragraph letter.
According to the Press Herald, it's unclear exactly what took place in these incidents. Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for Portland Public Schools, said in an email that Superintendent Xavier Botana would not comment on the new rules before the school board meeting Tuesday, when "the matter will be discussed."
It is also unclear how officials will monitor which students are allowed to attend events at either Portland or Deering high schools. Portland athletic director Lance Johnson did not respond to voice and email messages requesting an interview to speak about the new policy. Deering athletic director Michael Daly said, via email, that all questions regarding the new policy should be directed to Nacelewicz.
Portland High students attending a volleyball game at the school on Wednesday evening acknowledged that fan behavior has been a problem at times. There were no incidents at the game against Gorham High, attended by about 150 fans.
"I feel like I agree with (the letter) because there was a lot of violence, a lot of fights, stuff like that," said Ben Blake, a sophomore. "There's been a lot of stuff that's extra from what we should be doing, which is enjoying the sports teams and enjoying the game."
Jack Brewer, another Portland sophomore, said he and other students were "annoyed" by the school department letter.
"I don't think there's a reason for it. It's always been like that," he said. "I feel like we need more of an explanation for it. ... Yes, (unruly behavior) can be a problem. But some of it can be let through a little bit. They shouldn't be so strict. It sort of ruins the fun."
Brewer said it's important for the Portland and Deering communities to be able to mix.
"We also have friends who go to Deering. It's like splitting the city in half, you have your friends on one and you have friends on the other," he said. "But we also want to support the other team. It's not all hate."
The school district's policy has drawn criticism on social media, the Press Herald reported. A petition on change.org asking that the new rules be reversed has over 670 signatures, with many comments noting that the rule is divisive to the overall community and punishes all students for the actions of a few.
Fan behavior has been a concern at high school events nationwide for years, but it has heightened since the pandemic.
Mike LeGage, athletic director at Scarborough, said spectator behavior — by students and adults — has always been a "red flag" issue for athletic administrators. LeGage said he felt "it really got to an all-time low after COVID for a short time. I think the screaming at officials, the calling out of players, I think the vulgarity, the aggressive behavior was really alarming."
Getting fans, particularly students, to behave with more decency at games is a "hot topic" among high school administrators, Cheverus athletic director Amy Ashley said.
From March 2020 until nearly the end of the spring 2021 season, high school games had either no fans or extremely limited spectator attendance. It wasn't until the fall of 2021 that games were routinely played without fan restrictions.
"Some of the well-known (positive) behaviors that you didn't have to teach because they were learned, now you had to teach because they were missing," Ashley said. "The seniors who should have taught behavior were gone and now it was the sophomores who became the next group of seniors."
Engaging students in proactive conversations about what is and is not appropriate behavior at high school games is a tactic many local athletic directors said they are doing, according to the Press Herald.
LeGage also believes the trend of poor behavior, at least at Scarborough High, has been reversed this fall. At Scarborough, he and other administrators identified 15 seniors to be leaders of a newly formed group called the Fan Club.
"We meet with them every couple weeks and talk about how can we make the fan experience better for students and spectators and also how can we keep in check our behavior," LeGage said. "How we treat officials, and how we treat visiting teams, and we've had some really good conversations with our students with issues like the lack of officials and some of the concerns related to officials."
Dennis Walton, the Biddeford athletic director, said he invited 12 students that he knew attended most games to a lunch where he presented a PowerPoint about fan behavior. The lunch meeting's theme was getting students to understand the "why" behind expectations.
"We can all sit and wave our fingers and say, 'You are going to comply,'" Walton said. "I want them to understand why our expectations are what they are. At the end of the day you're going to have to comply because that's my job, but it's easier for all of us if you understand why."
Walton and LeGage are both involved with an informal committee of Southwestern Maine Activities Association athletic directors, formed this year, to address fan behavior. Walton is president of the SMAA.
"The overlying topic was trying to get ahead of spectator behavior and what the expectations are," Walton said.
Athletic administrators in the Western Maine Conference, the other large high school league in southern Maine, had a similar conversation at the start of the school year, the Press Herald reported. Sickels, the Freeport AD, said the group largely revised the league's sportsmanship statement.
Singling out players on either team by name or number is considered prohibited conduct, as are "negative, harassing, ridiculing, disrespectful and belittling cheers, or chants." The rules are in effect at all WMC facilities and violators can be removed from a facility and could lose the privilege of attending future games."
"We're working on eliminating the personal attacks," said Jeff Thoreck, Cape Elizabeth's athletic director. "We want the noise, the good positive support, the cheers and songs."
Thoreck said he's also purposely sought out students — in Cape's case several seniors — who can set the tone at games.
"It's constant conversations. It gets to the point where they ask, 'Can we say this?'" Thoreck said.
Those conversations make a difference, said Cape Elizabeth senior Eddie Caldera, a varsity soccer player and active supporter of Cape's other teams.
"We've improved so much. If you look back at Cape students four or five years ago, even three years ago, it was stuff way worse than this," Caldera said. "Nowadays it's more like friendly competition going back and forth. That's because of Mr. Thoreck. He's sat down with kids and talked to us and made the program better."
One response to unruly fans is to schedule varsity games for early afternoon starts instead of at night. That can make behavior easier to monitor and decreases overall fan attendance, particularly for students who have their own practices or after-school activities to attend.
"In particular as it relates to a couple of schools in our conference, we've moved varsity games from 7 to 3:30 p.m., because of it," Sickels said.
Thoreck said it's important for administrators to understand which rivalry games are going to produce larger crowds and heightened fan engagement. Those games require a stronger presence of adult authority.