Rallying hopes of moving on

School: Oakland Mills students feel they have to choose sides in a community divided by a grade-changing scandal.

April 04, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Decked out in school colors and wearing buttons that read "Don't hide the pride," students and staff at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School put on a grand show during a pep rally.

Students stomped their feet in the bleachers, boys cheered, girls danced and the band rocked. But for some, there was an undercurrent of sadness.

"[Morale is] getting better, but it's still not where it was," said junior Amy Adler, who helped organize the Thursday rally designed to close wounds that stubbornly refuse to heal.

Four months ago, the close-knit Oakland Mills school and community were divided by a grade-changing scandal. The students had nothing to do with it, but they have nevertheless born the brunt of the consequences, which are still mounting.

While most at the school are concentrating on moving forward, a "focused handful" is making it difficult, said Principal Marshall Peterson.

Rumors are flying - even up to the superintendent's office - that frustrated adults are using unsportsmanlike conduct to show solidarity for disciplined colleagues.

New coaches have been given a hard time, students have been encouraged to boycott spring sports and system officials have been bad-mouthed in classrooms, parents say.

"Those students are really caught in the middle," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who has heard of the behavior. "The school needs to move on and the community needs to move on regardless of what happens."

But many claim that is easier said than done when moving on feels like leaving a fallen comrade behind - specifically Ken Hovet, who was the school's athletic director, football coach and a history teacher until he was removed from his duties after the grade-changing news broke.

"It's hard to think about moving forward when you still don't know what's happening with Coach Hovet," said junior Travis Anthony, 17, who plays on the Scorpions' varsity football team.

On the eve of the state high school football tournament in November, the school system announced that the Scorpions would forfeit their spot in the playoffs along with seven season victories because they had used an ineligible player, whose grades had been improperly changed to make him appear eligible.

Over the next several months, more ineligible participants in extracurricular activities were found and disciplinary action meted out to various coaches and administrators, though none as harsh as Hovet's, which recommended his firing. He is appealing the decision to the Board of Education, but the issue is not likely to be resolved for months.

In the meantime, many students are trying to balance making the best of their high school year with showing support for a coach whose alleged guilt they are unsure of: Personnel laws have kept many details under wraps.

The pep rally last week was the students' idea. It came about after two months of hard work that involved a lot of soul-searching and intervention from counseling staff.

School system officials recruited students from groups throughout the school, "debriefed them," then inquired if "they could commit to moving forward," said student services coordinator Pamela Blackwell.

"They all agreed," she said, but not before a good deal of reflection.

"As kids started to talk about it, they said they began to feel a little disloyal," Blackwell said. "They didn't know how to align themselves. They felt like they had to choose sides."

One of her hardest tasks was convincing students that enjoying school offerings was not a betrayal of respected coaches, despite some adults' messages. She didn't try convincing certain staff members of that.

"I didn't even go there," she said of approaching adults likely to resist moving on.

"There are a lot of hurt feelings, and I know those things need to be addressed," said Vincent James, a teacher and student government adviser in his eighth year at Oakland Mills. "But my role is to separate whatever side I'm on and deal with whatever's best for the kids right now."

That is particularly true for the seniors, he said.

Peterson said he is trying to do the same, but some have read into his efforts and deemed them inappropriate.

"The only thing I've asked is that people respect the rights and dignity and best interests of individual students, students in general, our parents, our community and their co-workers," Peterson said.

Last month, he asked several staff members to sign documents saying they would act only in the best interests of students. He declined to discuss the memos or their reason for being, citing privacy laws. But interim Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said they were meant to quash negative behavior.

The signers, however, said they viewed the documents to be threats against their testifying during Hovet's appeal, according to a motion requesting relief from intimidation that was sent to the school board, said board member Joshua Kaufman.

The motion was passed on to Hovet's hearing officer, Gregory A. Szoka, who will address it immediately, Watson said.

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