A group of white high school students in Mississippi placed a noose around a black student's neck and "yanked backward," according to an NAACP leader, who described the incident Monday and demanded that federal authorities treat it as a hate crime.
The black student, a sophomore football player at Stone High School in Wiggins, Miss., was in a locker room on Oct. 13 when as many as four white students tossed a rope around his neck and pulled it tight, Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a news conference Monday.
"No child should be walking down the hall or in a locker room and be accosted with a noose around their neck," Johnson said. "This is 2016, not 1916. This is America. This is a place where children should go to school and feel safe in their environment."
The student's parents, Hollis and Stacey Payton, stood with Johnson in front of the Stone County Courthouse but did not speak.
The incident is the latest in a series of racially charged attacks - many verbal, some physical - that have grabbed national attention at a time when racial tensions in the United States have reached a boiling point.
Mississippi, a state with a long history of racial segregation and violence against African Americans, has been the site of multiple controversies recently. Earlier this year, a former University of Mississippi student admitted to tying a noose and a Confederate flag around the neck of a statute of James Meredith, the black student who became a civil rights legend when he integrated the university in 1962. The state has also been embroiled in a fight over whether to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. It is the only state in the country whose flag incorporates such imagery.
Athletes around the country - and football players in particular - have been the target of slurs and death threats in the weeks since San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. When a youth football team in Texas did the same last month, people threatened to shoot and lynch the 12- and 13-year-old players.
In Mississippi, white students used a real noose on their black teammate, Johnson said. The student was not injured but felt "terrified," he told ESPN.
"If you tolerate this incident today," Johnson said in Monday's news conference, "you can tolerate much violent behavior in the future."
An NAACP spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the student returned to practice afterward.
Initially, the Stone County Sheriff's Department discouraged the student's parents from filing a police report because one of the white students' parents is a former law enforcement officer, Johnson said.
Sheriff's Capt. Ray Boggs disputed that account, saying he told Stacey Payton, the mother, that filing a criminal case could stir resentment among some students and bring her son troubles at school, according to the AP.
"It's probably one of the hardest cases I'll ever handle in my career, because of the nature of it," Boggs, who is black, told the AP. "Have I ever had to deal with something like this? No, not from a high school."
Sheriff Mike Farmer confirmed that Payton spoke with Boggs, telling WLOX that the department did not know any of the students involved other than the victim.
"He wasn't trying to discourage her. He just wanted her to be sure," Farmer said.
All the accused students are younger than 17 and any charges will be filed in juvenile court, according to the sheriff's department.
Johnson said he wants to see the students charged as adults. He said the same students involved in the incident had come to school earlier in the year "brandishing Confederate flags on their vehicles." He called for a hate crime investigation and demanded that school officials expel anyone who participated.
"Allowing students to commit blatant hate crimes without severe consequences sends a message to students that their safety and well-being are not valuable enough to be protected," the NAACP said in a statement Monday.
Johnson said the Payton's parents had not been notified of any disciplinary action taken against the white students.
Stone County School District officials did not comment on the details of the incident Monday. The district's superintendent said in a statement that the district "takes all matters involving students very seriously."
Stone High School had 790 students during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. About a quarter were black, while more than 72 percent were white. Statewide, about 49 percent of all public school students are black and roughly 44 percent are white.
John Feaster, the football coach, said the team was in a locker room getting ready for practice when a white student approached the black student with the noose. Feaster, who is black, told ESPN that just one student - not a group of students - was responsible, and that he has not played on the team since it happened.
Feaster said he immediately reported the incident to administrators.
"I just want it understood, it could have been the biggest superstar and he would have been gone," he said. "I don't care who it is - if you do something like that, you can't be part of our team."
Carissa Bolden, the mother of a middle school student in Wiggins, Miss., attended the NAACP news conference. She told the AP that the fight over Confederate imagery in the Mississippi flag may have triggered the attack with the noose. White students, she said, had been flying state flags from their cars.
"I feel like it escalated from them allowing kids to bring Confederate flags," she said.