Father sues after teen is dropped from track team

Ervin Mears Jr. of Lawnside sued after Sterling Regional High School dropped his son, Mawusimensah, from the track team. The suit seeks $40 million plus 2012 and 2013 varsity letters and championship jackets.
Ervin Mears Jr. of Lawnside sued after Sterling Regional High School dropped his son, Mawusimensah, from the track team. The suit seeks $40 million plus 2012 and 2013 varsity letters and championship jackets. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 28, 2013

There's a point Ervin Mears Jr. wants people to understand, and it's the reason he filed a federal lawsuit when his son was ousted from the high school track team:

"Children have rights," Mears, 68, said, "just like any adult."

In this case, he said, it's the right to run.

On May 6, Mawusimensah Mears, a sophomore at Sterling Regional High School in Camden County, was kicked off the team, the suit says.

Eleven days later, his father sued in Camden, naming the coach, athletic director, principal, superintendent, and school board.

The suit says his son was subjected to bullying and harassment. It seeks $40 million plus 2012 and 2013 varsity letters and championship jackets.

Sterling's interim superintendent, Paul Spaventa, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation and student privacy.

"Interfering?" Mears asked, his voice rising in response to a question about whether filing a lawsuit was interfering with the school's prerogatives. "That's my son. I better interfere. I better make sure he gets every opportunity."

Is it rare for parents to sue over high school sports? Yes, according to local school and athletic officials, who say they have been threatened with suits but never actually sued.

Is it rare for parents to push hard to get their children off the bench? Not at all.

"Sports is a lightning rod," said athletic director Steve Iles at Delsea Regional High School in Franklinville. "If you look at society and our culture, sports is a very big part of it.

"It's an emotional issue anytime you are dealing with parents, children, and their sports," he said.

Mears, a disabled veteran from Lawnside, filed the suit on his own, without a lawyer's help.

He ran track in high school and the military and said his son "comes from a family of track winners." The boy was the "undefeated champ" in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter runs as an eighth grader at a Catholic school in 2010, the suit says.

That promise, his father said, should have translated into a key spot on the team when, as a ninth grader, Mawusimensah entered Sterling Regional High School in Somerdale. Sterling draws about 950 students from Magnolia, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Stratford, Laurel Springs, and other towns.

But things started to sour in his son's freshman year, Mears said, when he and his son's track coach disagreed over which races his son should run.

It's unfair, Mears said, that his son wasn't allowed to compete, even though he may have been faster than some seniors who raced. "If he doesn't qualify, then the clock will say he's not fast enough," said Mears, who worries his son may be losing out on the possibility of a college athletic scholarship.

"Let him get some exposure," Mears said.

Unexcused absences from practice were the official reason Mears said he was given for his son's dismissal. That's an excuse, Mears said. A family death and injured leg kept his son away.

"Participation in extracurricular activities is a right," Mears said.

Not allowing his son to participate constitutes bullying, harassment, and an "abusive school environment" in which the sophomore's rights to due process and freedom of speech were impeded, the suit says.

"I felt in a way, disrespected," Mawusimensah, 16, said Friday. "At practice, I work hard and I try to be the best athlete I can be, but at meet time, I didn't get the respect that I thought I deserved."

Joseph Rafferty, superintendent of the Gloucester City School District, has been a track coach, principal, superintendent, athlete, and the father of children on sports teams.

"I can understand how the father feels. I can understand the coach," said Rafferty, who has also had to back up his coaches as a principal. "Sometimes you're not going to make anybody happy."

Though he said he didn't know the particulars of the issue at Sterling, figuring out whom to run in a meet is tricky, he said. Individual prowess has to be weighed against the overall team score.

Acknowledging that parents can reasonably be concerned about scholarship prospects, Rafferty said he worried that in their concern, their children "lose the enjoyment of the activity."

As Mears' lawsuit embarks on its slow race through federal court, his son is staying on track. On Saturday, he was set to run in a United Age Group Track Coaches Association meet in Philadelphia.

Temple University psychology professor Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association, worries about "unintended consequences" in a situation like this, including any potential backlash from classmates of Mears' son if they perceive the father to be overly involved.

But, he added of that involvement, "the positive side is at least they are concerned about their kids, in contrast with many parents who don't get involved at all."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

|
|
|
|
|