North Avenue bumblers drop the ball in player case

November 08, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

HERE'S A quick quiz for you: What city agency can take a simple problem and then turn it into a putrid mess in no time at all?

Why, the school system, of course. If it's a molehill, the folks down at North Avenue will make it a mountain. If it calls for simple arithmetic, they'll turn it into one requiring three-variable calculus every time.

The mess in this case involves DeShawn Barrett, a 17-year-old Patterson High School junior who just wanted to play some football. Yes, yes, I can hear you now: Football's an extracurricular activity. Students have to fulfill certain obligations to play. But read on and determine for yourself if Barrett fulfilled those obligations.

Allan Steinhorn is an attorney. He has the papers -- most of the public records. I could give you the short of it, but there is no short to this story. So here's the long of it.

Barrett started practicing with Patterson's team Aug. 20. He was declared academically ineligible Sept. 23, after anonymous parties called the news media and informed them Patterson had used an ineligible player -- Barrett -- who, in the fourth quarter of the school year that ended in June, failed geometry, mechanical drawing and machine shop at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. Since Mervo is a citywide school, Barrett had to transfer to his neighborhood high school, Patterson.

You'd think, judging from the reaction of school muckety-mucks, that Barrett had sat on his haunches all summer and waltzed into Patterson expecting to play football. Far from it. Barrett passed on a good-paying summer gig to attend summer school in the morning and in the afternoon at a "twilight" program. He took four classes. He got a 78 in geometry and made that class up. He got an 86 in chemistry, an 83 in English and an 80 in American government. He couldn't make up the mechanical drawing and machine shop classes because they aren't offered in summer school.

According to Steinhorn, Roger Wrenn, Patterson's athletic director and head football coach, met with Laura D'Anna, the school's principal, and Kelley Bagdasarian, academic coach for Patterson's football team. (The reason why you don't hear from these folks directly will be explained shortly.) They looked at the rules. One of them read, "Students who have no more than one grade below passing in the previous marking period automatically will be eligible to participate or practice in any extracurricular activity governed during the next marking period." That clearly disqualified Barrett, whose failures occurred in the fourth quarter.

But further down, there's another rule that reads, "Students may become eligible for all activities by completing summer school." Wrenn, D'Anna and Bagdasarian looked at Barrett's summer school transcript and interpreted that rule to mean he was eligible to play.

The muckety-mucks interpreted it differently, as in Barrett had to take courses in the classes he failed, even though the classes weren't offered. Enter Steinhorn, who told the North Avenue honchos repeatedly that they couldn't read their own interpretation into the rule. They didn't agree, but Circuit Judge John Philip Miller did. On Oct. 31, Miller granted a temporary restraining order and ruled that Barrett "is allowed to participate in high school athletics."

Would the folks at North Avenue -- who have this notion they're not accountable to anyone -- defy a court order?

Yes, they would. Well, they tried, by ruling Barrett couldn't play in Patterson's game yesterday, because that would be a violation of the rule that requires athletes to participate in 10 days of practice.

But wait a second, Steinhorn objected. Barrett had participated in 25 practices, dating back to the summer.

No good, say the muckety-mucks. We're interpreting the rule to mean 10 consecutive days of practice.

"The whole premise of the rule," said Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the city school system, "is to insure that the player is physically fit for the game. It's a safety issue."

Steinhorn countered that a doctor stood waiting in the wings, ready to proclaim Barrett physically fit to play. The attorney got an affidavit from William Lewis, former athletic director at Edmondson, Southwestern and Polytechnic Institute, who said he's never seen the rules on eligibility and practices interpreted the way they have been by the folks on North Avenue. Steinhorn's arguments fell on deaf ears. He'd have had better luck getting rapper 50 Cent to sing like Caruso.

Wrenn, D'Anna and Bagdasarian can't talk about this issue, pointing to a gag rule imposed by -- guess who? -- yep, the North Avenue gaggle of rule misinterpreters. Steinhorn was back before Miller yesterday trying to get a second temporary restraining order imposed that would allow Barnett to play in the Patterson-Edmondson game.

He got it. Barrett played.

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