With students who speak over 60 languages, Portland’s public schools are the most diverse in Maine, giving young people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds a chance to learn from one another and making them better equipped for a complex, ever-changing society.

Not everybody, though, perceives this diversity as something positive. At an Oct. 7 boys’ soccer match at Scarborough High School, home-team fans allegedly directed ugly racial taunts at players from Deering High School in Portland, reportedly telling them to “Go back to Africa” and waving an American flag while chanting “USA.”

But a few people with unenlightened views shouldn’t be allowed to have the last word. In short order, the slurs have been investigated and denounced; Scarborough’s superintendent has declared a zero-tolerance policy for bigoted talk from the sidelines, and the schools have announced plans to join forces to promote respectful behavior at games. There’s no place in the stands for someone who can’t cheer for their side without demeaning the other.

The “USA” chant may have been a well-meant reference to cheering at international matches, but it’s tone deaf when facing Deering, whose teams have a sizable roster of immigrant players.

And there’s no excuse for demanding that these student-athletes “go back” to their homeland – it tells kids whose families have weathered violence, hunger and worse to make it to the U.S. that they don’t belong here, no matter what they’ve accomplished. Another reported insult, “I can smell you from here,” is personally degrading and has no place in an atmosphere that’s supposed to foster a sense of friendly rivalry based on one’s athletic skills.

Defusing the hurt calls for Scarborough to hold itself and its fans accountable for their actions. Superintendent George Entwhistle set the proper tone when he said, “We take responsibility. … We don’t know that they were Scarborough students, quite frankly, but we’re taking a stand to say that’s not going to be happening.”

No students have been disciplined; however, the district has reminded young people and their parents of the standards for appropriate conduct at athletic competitions. And the Scarborough and Deering athletic directors, along with Deering’s principal, are having strategizing sessions on fan education.

Sports are supposed to foster camaraderie, but that team spirit shouldn’t be allowed to sour into jeering and ridicule. The events at the Deering-Scarborough soccer game give Scarborough fans a chance to take some hands-on lessons on life in a multicultural world.