Archive for Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Parents raise concerns about football

Allegations made about off-field incidents; board says it’s investigating

January 10, 2007

For several months, rumors have swirled about Tonganoxie High School football team's alleged locker room misbehavior.

But no one would speak publicly about the issue. Until Monday night.

At Monday's school board meeting, district patron Larry Bouza spoke in open session about the rumors.

Bouza said he was representing concerned parents "who do not feel they can voice their concerns about inappropriate activities within the football program."

The inappropriate activities, Bouza alleges, include players urinating on other players in locker room showers, a choking incident in a THS restroom, players hitting other players with towels and players putting Bengay on another player's crotch.

Bouza said he believed most of the inappropriate behavior was done by upperclassmen to freshmen and sophomores.

Bouza said he understood that board members might not be able to talk to him about his concerns, which, as personnel issues, are confidential.

"We only felt the need for this to be on public record to assure that there will be changes in the program to prevent future incidents," Bouza said.

When contacted Tuesday, football coach Mark Elston declined to comment.

Elston, THS football coach since 2000, started his first season with 46 football players, including 19 freshmen. His program has grown. This year, the team had 70 players. In his seven years in Tonganoxie, he's never

endured a losing season. And, his teams have advanced to the state playoffs five times.

Tonganoxie school Superintendent Richard Erickson could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The Bouzas have a freshman son who does not play football. Bouza, who is a former teacher, said he decided to speak up out of concern for young people.

But another parent -- this one, whose son is a former THS football player -- said he has a personal reason to be concerned.

His son, he said, was an alleged victim of locker room antics.

Tim VanDruff, Rossville, is the father of former THS student and football player Matt VanDruff. Matt, 17, played football at THS in the fall. He lived with his grandparents and attended school in Tonganoxie while his father was on active duty in Iraq.

In December, when his father returned home, Matt moved back to Rossville.

Since then, the locker room rumors reached VanDruff.

When VanDruff heard of the alleged bullying, including the inappropriate use of Bengay, he asked his son about it. The answer surprised him.

"Matt said, 'They did that to me and they did it to a few other kids,'" VanDruff said.

This past fall was the second year Matt had played football in Tonganoxie. Matt also played football in Tonganoxie his freshman year.

VanDruff recently learned his son was allegedly bullied in the THS locker room during his freshman year as well.

"It happened there before," VanDruff said. "I sent him there the second time, not knowing what happened the first time. ... I didn't know about it or I wouldn't have sent him back down there."

VanDruff said he's not surprised his son hadn't told him.

"He doesn't open up, he doesn't talk about it," VanDruff said. "I don't know if he's afraid of losing friends or what. I told him, 'Friends don't do that to you.'"

The behavior goes too far, VanDruff said.

"We were ornery when we were kids, but we had a line we drew," VanDruff said. "We didn't cross that line."

Looking into situation

Parents aren't the only ones who've heard the rumors.

The news reached school administrators and board members several months ago. But because it was a personnel matter, any discussions were held in executive session -- out of the public eye.

Board member Diane Truesdell said the board earlier received a letter in which a district patron voiced concerns. She said the board has been dealing with the situation.

"We've been made aware of the situation, and we're looking into it," she said.

After hearing the rumors and talking to students and other parents, Bouza said he and his wife, Ginger Bouza, decided it was time to bring concerns to school board members.

"Some kids had mentioned it when they were over here at our house," Bouza said in a telephone interview with The Mirror on Tuesday.

Curious, the couple started asking around.

"And then people started calling us," Bouza said.

Bouza said he decided not to inform school board members ahead of time that he'd speak at the meeting.

"We made the decision that the best way for it to be handled would be unannounced so that the wagons couldn't be circled," Bouza said. "All we really wanted to do is make it public. I have full confidence that the school board, the principals and the coaches will be certain it doesn't happen anymore."

The fact that he raised concerns doesn't indicate Tonganoxie has a poor school district or football program, Bouza said.

"Just a slight change needs to be made," he added.

And, when problems arise, they should be talked about.

"We have the right district, we have the right people," Bouza said. "It's just that when there's abuse it should not be hidden."

Board member Leana Leslie confirmed the district has been looking into the alleged incidents.

"We're definitely monitoring what's going on there. Obviously, things have been brought up to us. Our big thing is getting an investigation done to determine what, if anything, truly happened," Leslie said. "We're very aware and we're keeping our finger on top of what's been told to us."

Happy with meeting

But not all parents are upset about the rumors.

Steve Fox is the father of a freshman football player.

Fox attended an October meeting during which parents of freshman football players met with Elston to discuss the allegations of choking and other incidents.

"I'd rather not get into the details of it," Fox said. "But everything was laid out to the parents ... things were pretty much handled well. We were happy with the way things went down."

Fox said he thought the rumors about the alleged locker room antics may have gotten out of hand.

"There were certain incidents that happened that probably got pushed out of proportion making it sound like it was more serious than it actually was," Fox said. "To a certain extent they did happen, but it probably wasn't as horrible as some might think."

Fox said that as a teenager he played football at Bonner Springs High School. And he said it's not uncommon for locker room antics to occur.

"It gets a little gamey at times," Fox said.

Despite alleged off-field incidents, Fox said, his son was looking forward to playing football in his sophomore year, as well.

"Oh, I couldn't stop him if I tried," Fox said.

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