It's Footloose revisited, minus the happy ending: The most successful high school basketball program in the land nears disintegration because a teacher catches two high-profile students groping each other with youthful abandon.
Ever since mercenary genius Stu Vetter came to coach hoops for St. John's at Prospect Hall six years ago, college recruiters have been flocking to the parochial school's gym the way the infirm do to Lourdes. Vetter, a Manassas native, arrived in Frederick with a big-time reputation, having already run nationally ranked and renowned basketball programs at Flint Hill and Harker Prep, and coached such future pros as Dennis Scott, George Lynch, and Randolph Childress.
Among the players who have worn St. John's colors in recent years: Cameron Dollar of UCLA, Ya Ya Dia of Georgetown, and Duke's Nate James.
Other signs of the team's eminence abound: St. John's is one of only three high school teams licensed by Nike to wear Michael Jordan's pricey and prestigious Jump Man clothing line; and, incredibly, the mighty DeMatha won't even suit up against Vetter's bunch.
The grand tradition continued this year, when Jason Capel, an All-American who just signed to play for the University of North Carolina, led St. John's to an undefeated season and the top ranking in USA Today's 1997-98 high school poll.
But Vetter may well have cranked out his last prospect from Prospect Hall. The beginning of what looks like the end of the Vetter dynasty began in February, when a teacher caught Damien Wilkins, the expected star of next year's team and one of the most prized juniors in the country, in a passionate lip-lock and grope-fest with a female student when he was supposed to be on his way to study hall. The young lovebirds were fully clothed and standing upright during their libidinous encounter.
Though a schoolyard liaison seems, in the age of Jonesboro, quite tame indeed, St. John's headmaster Tom Peri dealt swiftly and harshly with the participants. He expelled Wilkins, the son of NBA veteran Gerald Wilkins (now of the Orlando Magic), and also gave the boot to the youngster's spit-swapping study buddy, fellow junior Allison Mathis, the daughter of Deborah Mathis, a White House correspondent for Gannett and a regular panelist on WUSA's Inside Washington.
Upon learning of the punishment, the parents of the accused went to Peri to ask forgiveness for their children's act, and to beg him to commute the stiff sentence. The pleadings, however, did not reopen the schoolhouse door.
"There's no appeal you can imagine that we didn't try with Tom Peri," says Deborah Mathis, a Chevy Chase resident. "I told him that my daughter admits that she was kissing and rubbing in the hallway, and that she knows she was wrong and deserved punishment. But I also pointed out that she had not a speck of trouble on her record, and that she just wanted a second chance. By the end of my meeting, I had even quoted scripture, and cried, and gotten on my knees and begged him to just let my kid stay in school. But he wouldn't listen. He just wore this smirk and let me squirm and made me feel awful."
When Peri failed to rescind his expulsion order, the elder Mathis and the elder Wilkins trudged off to U.S. District Court in Baltimore to file suit against the headmaster and the school. In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Peri acted arbitrarily and thereby breached the contract the parents had with the school. Fred Cooke, the D.C. lawyer handling the plaintiffs' case, says that the St. John's student manual describes public display of affection as something punishable by detention, not expulsion, and adds that there is no record of a student ever being expelled for such low-level amorous contact with a willing paramour. The plaintiffs also allege that the expulsions were racially motivatedboth Mathis and Wilkins are black; Peri and an overwhelming percentage of the St. John's administration and student body are whitein violation, they suggest, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"Nobody on our side was eager to turn a case of two kids kissing in a hallway into a federal case," says Cooke. "But the way Peri has acted so far is wholly unreasonable. Nobody was put in danger by what the kids were doing. They were kissing! That's what kids do sometimes! If that's all it took to get expelled when I was in school, well, me and my buddies would still be looking for our GEDs."
So far, the case hasn't gone the way the plaintiffs hoped. Last week, a federal judge denied their request for a temporary injunction that would have allowed the kissers to complete their school year while waiting for their day in court. The court agreed with St. John's argument that the school's right to dole out discipline as it sees fit supersedes a student's right to stay in school while fighting an expulsion order.
When contacted to discuss the Wilkins-Mathis case, Peri admitted that he'd never expelled mutually affectionate students prior to February but cited the pending legal proceedings in declining to answer any other questions.
David Grove, the attorney for St. John's, denies that the punishment doled out by his client was unduly harsh and asserts that the judge was right to keep the smoochers out of school.
"The question was, 'How can the school effectively enforce its procedures if every student who gets expelled can just take the school to court and ask if they should have gotten a suspension or a detention instead?'" says Grove.
The case is also being fought in the court of public opinion. The tumult resulting from the expulsion order was so great that St. John's held town meetings, most of which served as referendums on Vetter's tenure and the basketball program. The gatherings have been marred by public displays of disaffection and downright animosity between parents of the players and parents of nonplayersa battle that, with a few exceptions, comes down to black vs. white.
Bob Amick, an Atlanta restaurateur whose son plays for and lives with Vetter, is one of the few white basketball parents. Amick says the behavior of Peri and the townspeople during the kissing kids episode has made him rethink his own child's enrollment at the Frederick school.
"A lot of racist attitudes that have been festering at the school and in that community for a long time have come out since this thing broke, and the basketball players and the coach are all being hurt," Amick says. "This school is ranked as the best in the whole country and should be a source of incredible pride for that whole town. But instead, we have people coming to these meetings and calling the players 'a bunch of Latrell Sprewells' and 'those thugs.' And for what? Because two kids were kissing. That's out of hand.
"Without question, the punishment given to Damien Wilkins doesn't fit the crime. You look at him and then look at how other students who get in trouble are treated, and you have to come away with this feeling: At St. John's, blacks get treated differently than whites."
No further court proceedings are scheduled in the Wilkins-Mathis case until next October. That's a month after the St. John's school year begins, so barring unforeseen developments, the expelled kissers will never attend another class there.
Deborah Mathis is now scrambling to get her daughter enrolled in a new school in time to prevent her from having to repeat 11th grade. The lessons young Allison is learning while playing hooky against her will these days aren't exactly the ones Mom hoped enrollment at the parochial school would bring.
"Tom Peri keeps telling me that this is a Catholic school, but whatever happened to confession and redemption?" rails the elder Mathis. "He hides behind all this talk of morals and calls himself a Christian, but he's just on a power play. I don't see any Christ in him at all. I can't imagine Christ being such a jerk."Dave McKenna