Sports scandal shakes school

Parents, students worry grade-changing incident will tarnish Oakland Mills

`Killed our reputation'

January 14, 2004|By Tricia Bishop and Gus G. Sentementes | Tricia Bishop and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

An orange-and-white sign in front of Columbia's Oakland Mills High School proclaims that it is the "Home of the Scorpions," whose sports teams proudly boast a number of championships.

But yesterday, in the halls of the school and the homes of the community, there was a sense of despair at the removal of a respected coach and the loss of a season of hard work for several of its teams. And there was concern that a grade-changing scandal would tarnish the image of Oakland Mills.

"It's pretty much killed our reputation," said 16-year-old Karl Kleve, a junior at Oakland Mills. "Because of what some people did, it ruins it for everyone else."

Parents, students and public officials in Howard County trying to make sense of a recent grade-changing scandal at Oakland Mills High in Columbia said yesterday they fear it will have grave consequences, such as quashing community and student pride.

One of Columbia's original villages, Oakland Mills has struggled to revitalize its image, as the village center lost its anchor grocery store and other tenants in recent years. Crime has helped lead to a perception of the area as Columbia's most troubled village center.

Residents are sensitive about the troubles - not wanting to be viewed as one of Columbia's struggling villages as they try to reinvigorate the area.

"I think the positive side of this is that it wasn't swept under the rug," said Barbara Russell, the Columbia Council representative for Oakland Mills.

But it's likely a systemic problem, she added, one for which Oakland Mills may have been made the scapegoat. "Oakland Mills was held under the microscope, and I think all schools should face the same scrutiny," Russell said. "I'm not assuming that the only place this is taking place is Oakland Mills."

Like the community, the 1,000-student school has been trying to turn its image around, hoping a recent renovation will help community confidence and buoy student performance, which has been lagging. Some said the grade scandal makes a difficult situation worse.

"The administration and staff at Oakland Mills is going to have to work very hard to regain the ground that was lost," Russell said.

On Monday, schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke announced that an investigation into academic eligibility for extracurricular activities at Oakland Mills showed that 16 students were participating in activities who shouldn't have been because their grades didn't meet county requirements.

Teams that used ineligible players will have to forfeit all season wins, and any staff members who allowed the violations face discipline. Athletic director and teacher Ken Hovet has been removed from his post, and O'Rourke has promised other penalties.

Hovet said he will not comment on the grade changes until he receives final word from the school system on his employment status, though officials said they will hire a new athletic director.

"It's an extremely serious matter, and it strikes right at the academic integrity of the school system, as well as the reputation of Oakland Mills," O'Rourke said, stressing that students will not be sanctioned because this is "an adult matter."

But families said their teen-agers are suffering the consequences.

"The kids feel very frustrated," said Irene Sims, who has a son on the Scorpions football team. "His football season was wiped out."

In November, the school's varsity football team forfeited its seven wins and a playoff shot after Principal Marshall Peterson reported that a player's transcript had been improperly changed to make him eligible for the sport.

The announcement prompted O'Rourke to launch a two-month investigation that returned the disturbing results Monday and subsequently forced the junior varsity football, field hockey, volleyball and boys' cross country teams to sacrifice their fall wins under the rules of the Maryland Secondary School Athletics Association - a bombshell for the majority of student athletes who had nothing to do with the scandal.

County athletics coordinator Don Disney said he didn't expect to find any other infractions at area schools because no one stepped forward during this investigation as usually happens. Other schools will be asked to assess their records, though, he added, and report any violations. The superintendent's staff will perform random spot checks to ensure compliance.

Gary Glisan, an at-large member of Howard's Interscholastic Advisory Committee, said the idea that this is an isolated problem is ludicrous.

"You've got to wonder what's going on at other schools," said Glisan, a former Boosters Club president at Oakland Mills.

Glisan said that the county's requirement that student have a 2.0 grade point average and no failing grades to participate in extracurricular activities is "absolutely ridiculous."

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