In January, five Arlington Heights High School soccer players, all Hispanic, were found smoking marijuana and also had beer in their room in a San Antonio hotel. The students were in town for a soccer tournament; their coach, Chad Whitt, caught them while he was making rounds checking up on his players.
Since then, three of the five have found themselves tangled in a bureaucratic tug-of-war that Whitt charges is due in part to his own history in helping reveal problems at Heights and in part to an ongoing bias at the school that he believes results in Hispanic students being treated unfairly when it comes to discipline.
After the discovery, Whitt called the district’s assistant athletic director in Fort Worth for instructions and was told to call the police. The police let the students go without writing any citations. But the players’ part in the tournament was over: Whitt called their parents, who had to drive to San Antonio to pick them up.
As punishment, the students were suspended for three days and made to attend a drug and alcohol awareness class. Whitt said recently that an Arlington Heights vice principal told him the students’ future with the team was up to the coach.
The two students who admitted to bringing the drugs and alcohol on the trip in effect quit the team of their own accord. Whitt suspended the other three players for 10 games –– roughly half the season. The three are honor roll students who had never been in trouble before, so Whitt decided to give them a second chance.
“I made the decision that they’d been punished and that they learned and understood that what they did was wrong,” he said. “They paid the price, and I let them back on the team.”
Whitt and the other players were eager to put the ordeal behind them. The Heights soccer program was still reeling from the death of a teammate earlier in the school year. Javier Zacarias, a 15-year-old sophomore, drowned in Lake Worth in September.
As it turned out, things were far from resolved.
In the weeks that followed, the three kids were yo-yoed on and off the team. When the trio finished the 10-game suspension, Heights Principal Sarah Weeks told the coach the kids couldn’t rejoin the team after all.
After more than a month of arguing and meetings, the students were told this week that they are back on the team. It took the intervention of school board trustee Jacinto Ramos to make it happen.
The ordeal opened old wounds for Whitt, who believes that the players were used by the district to retaliate against him for being one of its most outspoken critics. He has been a vocal supporter of Joe Palazzolo, the former vice principal turned whistle-blower who exposed widespread attendance fraud, disparate treatment of minority students, and a long list of other issues. It was Whitt and another coach who brought the attendance fraud to Palazzolo’s attention.
The TEA verified the majority of Palazzolo’s complaints. Whitt is listed as a witness for him in his upcoming wrongful termination trial. In 2011 the coach told a TEA administrative law judge that he was threatened with termination after testifying in an earlier TEA hearing on behalf of the former assistant principal.
District spokesman Clint Bond declined to comment, noting that the district is prohibited from discussing any cases involving student discipline.
Whitt said his problems over the soccer players’ treatment began when they returned from their three-day suspension from classes. The coach said he went to his immediate supervisor and asked whether the kids would be allowed back on the team.
“He told me ‘It’s up to you as far as how long you want to hold them out,’ ” Whitt recalled.
After the students served their 10-game suspension and apologized to the team, Whitt allowed them to return in time for one of the final tournaments of the year. As is customary, he notified teachers that the students would miss a day of school to play in the out-of-town competition.
Weeks, who is in her first year as principal of the oft-troubled school, saw the list and asked the coach why the students were still on the team.
Whitt explained the leeway he’d been given by the vice principal. The coach said Weeks had some reservations but was generally supportive of his decision.
However, the following week, Whitt got a text message from Weeks telling him not to let the kids play again until the students had met with officials from the athletic department. A fellow coach assured Whitt the meeting was just a formality.
At the meeting, Weeks told Whitt that she had decided the kids were off the team, after Superintendent Walter Dansby affirmed it was her decision to make.
Whitt was especially frustrated given what he sees as the school’s history of disparate treatment of Hispanic students in disciplinary matters, attendance, and athletics.
“I can tell you the only reason this happened is because these kids are Hispanic,” he said.
When attendance fraud was going on at Heights, he said, “I saw a white kid get 55 absences erased in one fell swoop, and he graduated. And the same [forgiveness] was not afforded to the other kids.
“It’s always been like that at Heights,” he said. “If you have money and you’re the right color, you can do whatever you want to do.”
Whitt said many non-Hispanic athletes have committed worse offenses than the soccer players, with few or no consequences. He cited two recent examples, one involving a white baseball and football player and another involving three black basketball players.
“Two years ago … our star quarterback and star pitcher on the baseball team was busted with alcohol and tobacco in his car, and he didn’t even get suspended,” Whitt said. “Last year [three members of] the basketball team were caught out of their hotel rooms after curfew having sex with female students” in the young women’s hotel rooms, “and they were suspended for two or three days and immediately rejoined the basketball team.”
The soccer players’ parents asked Raul Duran, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, for help. Duran, a former schools employee who sued the district for racial discrimination, and Richard Gonzales, president of the LULAC local district, met with Weeks and the parents.
“Basically we were there to explain the parents’ feelings and their disappointment with the decision,” Duran said. “Our meeting was more of an informational type meeting. We heard the position of the school district; they heard our position.”
Duran said that Weeks told the parents and LULAC representatives that Whitt should not have allowed the players back on the team and that the school’s position has always been that the three should be suspended through the end of the season.
Ramos, the schools trustee who represents a predominantly Hispanic Northside district, said he was approached by one of the players and by LULAC in hopes that he could convince the administrators to reconsider.
He met with the three students. “They said they had done everything that was asked of them, and they thought that they were going to be able to get back on the team,” Ramos said. “That’s when I called [the district’s athletic director] Kevin Green and Mr. Dansby, and [asked them] to take another look at what the boys had been told.”
Whitt said that soon after that, he received a phone call from Dansby, who told him that it is indeed the coach’s responsibility to determine how long a player is suspended. Whitt put the trio back on the team.
Last week, Whitt filed a grievance against Weeks on an unrelated matter. The principal, he said, placed a letter of concern in his record for failing to contact a parent about a disciplinary matter. Whitt said he was absent from school on the day he was supposed to have contacted the parent and has an e-mail from a vice principal telling him it was not his responsibility to contact the parent anyway.
He maintains that his role in Palazzolo’s saga is the reason for many of his clashes with administrators. Palazzolo’s wrongful termination lawsuit against the district will be back in court later this month.
“I don’t believe it [the pressure on him] is coming from [Weeks],” he said. “I believe that it’s coming from downtown.”