AASD responds to fan incident

District apologizes for students’ chant

The Altoona Area School District has issued a public apology in response to an insensitive chant directed by its student section at a Hollidaysburg player during the latter moments of the Mountain Lions’ 49-39 boys basketball victory on Friday night at the AAHS Fieldhouse.

“It crossed the line,” Altoona Area athletic director Phil Riccio said of the situation on Saturday afternoon. “It was an embarrassment. It’s not something that represents us. We’re all saddened by the actions.”

Riccio said the school also self-reported the incident to District 6 and plans to have more meetings both internally and with Hollidaysburg Area School District officials to determine how to address the matter moving forward.

In the final two minutes of the game, Riccio and Mountain Lions coach Doug West both said they noticed Hollidaysburg player Casey Ottaway visibly emotional on the court while Altoona students were chanting something. Listening more closely, Riccio said it became apparent that the chant was about Ottaway’s mother.

Ellen Ottaway passed away in September 2016 at the age of 55, leaving her husband, Brent, and five children. Casey is the youngest of the Ottaway children, all of whom were athletes for Hollidaysburg.

Riccio said he immediately went and addressed the student section to put an end to the chant. According to Riccio, there were approximately 100 students sitting in the group, and, while he couldn’t tell how many were taking part in the chant, it was clearly audible.

Following the game, several people took to social media with posts that went viral, including one by Casey Ottaway’s older brother, Zach.

“Most disrespectful, sickening thing I have ever heard,” Zach Ottaway wrote. “They have no idea what Casey and all of us have gone through. I hope their parents are ashamed of them and themselves because they have raised repulsive, abhorrent children. Clearly none of the kids in that student section has lost a parent.”

It wasn’t only people associated with Hollidaysburg who were upset. West, also, expressed anger with the student section’s behavior; he ran to the baseline to yell to the students to stop.

“It was mindboggling to me that anyone could sink to that level. It’s a game. A game is not life or death. This young man has lost his parent,” West said.

“Here we are winning, and it ends up we have to apologize for our student section,” West added.

Riccio signed the apology letter along with superintendent Charles Prijatelj and high school principal Andrew Neely. It appeared on the front of the Altoona School District home page Saturday.

“(T)he behavior of some Altoona students (Friday) evening was abhorrent, unacceptable and unsportsmanlike,” the letter read. “We apologize to the Ottaway family, the Hollidaysburg basketball team and the Hollidaysburg community for this behavior. Please be assured that actions will be taken to address our students and to prevent it from occurring in the future.”

According to West, Riccio and multiple other sources, Mountain Lion players went to Ottaway’s support after the game, spending extra time with him in the handshake line and waiting to talk to him later. West said player Nate Cherry even boarded the Golden Tiger bus before it left to apologize on behalf of the Altoona community.

A GoFundMe campaign also was established by Casey Rispoli to raise money for Ellen Ottaway’s favorite charity — Doctors Without Borders — in response to the situation. By early Saturday evening, it already had surpassed its $500 target.

“I’ve been reading posts that the Altoona Boys team should be suspended because of what happened. Let me make this clear: the basketball team did NOT do anything wrong at all,” Susan Haupt, mother of Tiger player Ethan Haupt, wrote on Facebook. “They showed nothing but class and respect and I want everyone to know that. The AAHS administration is handling things like they should.”

That process is not over. Riccio said assistant superintendent Brad Hatch will join he, Prijatelj and Neely to discuss other steps to be taken in response to the situation. He said Hollidaysburg administrators also will meet with the Altoona group at some point.

“We’re going to ensure that this doesn’t happen again and to hold those accountable for what already has,” Riccio said.