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Offsetting Penalties 

After a mid-September football game in Lake Charles turns violent, a state hearing tries to determine what happened -- and why.

Dervis Harris may have done something wrong -- and then something right -- on the night a Louisiana high school football game ended in what police called "a major disturbance."

Harris, an assistant football coach at John F. Kennedy High School in New Orleans, faces a one-year suspension for a verbal altercation with an Alfred Barbe High School coach during the final seconds of a game between the two schools Sept. 19 at Barbe Stadium in Lake Charles.

But another Barbe official says Harris' subsequent intervention in a bleacher brawl between Kennedy band members and Barbe fans probably spared several injured Barbe youths from more serious harm. "The hippie-looking guy ... kept it from being a whole lot worse than it could have been," the Barbe official says of Harris, a tall JFK offensive coordinator who sports dreadlocks. Harris declined to comment.

The sensational melee in the visitors' bleachers of the new stadium was captured on amateur video and reportedly broadcast nationwide on CNN. A total of eight Barbe students -- including three girls ages 14 to 15 -- reported that they were attacked by JFK band members and supporters in the visitors' bleachers or in an area nearby, according to Calcasieu Parish school records.

At least five Barbe students were taken to a hospital emergency room, including three male youths who were "beaten and kicked and shoved" down several rows of bleachers, according to the records and school officials. Eighteen-year-old Michael Lemelle suffered a fractured nose. Fifteen-year-old Garland Rye was treated for contusions to his head. And Francis Wright, 16, allegedly was struck repeatedly in the head and back.

During the post-game chaos, Barbe team physician Dr. Stanley Kordisch testified that an additional Barbe student was "knocked out cold" by two Barbe fans in a separate altercation. And records show a 16-year-old female Barbe student sustained hand and shoulder injuries in an alleged attack by male JFK band members in an area outside the stadium.

All of the injured Barbe students have recovered and are now back in school, says Calcasieu Parish Schools superintendent Jude Theriot. By late last week, no one had been arrested in connection with the widely broadcast violence in the visitors' stands. The JFK school band was immediately suspended by Orleans Parish school officials from participation in further school football games, pending further disciplinary investigation. Three men, including two Lake Charles men, were arrested at the stadium for three separate physical altercations, says Sgt. Mark Kraus, a spokesman for the Lake Charles Police Department.

The "bleacher beatings" were just one of at least three violent dramas that unfolded at Barbe Stadium that night. To date, the Kennedy-Barbe controversy has centered on the first -- and least violent -- of the confrontations: the on-field physical altercation between assistant coaches from the opposing schools during the final seconds of the game. The second altercation involved the bleacher melee; the third centered on a group of Barbe fans who threw bricks, bottles and plastic PVC pipe at Kennedy players, cheerleaders and support staff as they attempted to board school buses to return to New Orleans, according to testimony at a public hearing last week.

The volatile post-game climate at an arena with an estimated crowd of 6,575 people tested the capacity of 23 Lake Charles area law enforcement officers assigned to keep the peace. The third disturbance also strained relations between officers from Lake Charles and New Orleans.

Two NOPD school resource officers -- Olivia Fontenot and Mark Kitchens -- provided security for the game. They allege that Lake Charles law enforcement officers drew guns on the departing Kennedy entourage and failed to assist the NOPD officers when they were trying to break up fights in the visitors' bleachers, according to written statements provided for the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) probe of the events.

In a memo to JFK principal Theresa A. Henderson, Fontenot wrote: "The band was provoked into that fight [in the bleachers]. ... [S]ix black male members from the other school [attempted to harass the band members]."

In another memo dated Sept. 22, JFK band director Vernell Ford agreed with the NOPD officer. "The band was only protecting themselves. They did not swing any instruments or any other objects," Ford wrote. "During the fight, the Lake Charles Police watched and did absolutely nothing to assist. After the fight was over, they gave very little assistance."

Ford said the Lake Charles police then escorted the band out of the stands. "As we were walking to our buses, the same group of kids began throwing bricks for reasons unknown. The Lake Charles Police drew their revolvers and aimed toward the band members and support groups." Ford said that he made a comment to one of the LCPD officers and he was threatened with arrest.

In her memo, NOPD's Fontenot indicated Lake Charles law enforcement elevated tensions after the game ended: "Upon attempting to escort the Performing Team out the back way to avoid any further problems, they were attacked by spectators tossing bricks and Officers drawing guns and being told to get on their buses and get out of town. They (police) went as far as to escorting the buses to the interstate and advising all the kids to keep their head down so they don't get hit with bricks."

Sgt. Mark Davis, spokesman for the Lake Charles Police Department (LCPD), says city officers are required to file a use of force report whenever they unholster their weapons and no such reports have been filed since the game. "I was a police officer assigned to work that duty," Davis says. "I was in the middle of the incident with the band and I didn't see any police officer from Lake Charles Police Department, or any sheriff's officer, draw a gun."

Davis says he only saw "professional police work" demonstrated by LCPD officers and deputies assigned to the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office. A spokesperson for the sheriff's office could not be reached at presstime for comment.

In a written statement, Barbe parent S. Ray Fontenot recounted how he saw six to eight black youths carrying two-by-fours, cinder block materials, and mop handles toward the Kennedy assembly area. After making sure his wife and daughter were safe, S. Ray Fontenot said, he trailed the group: "I then began to follow this group north, recruiting any adult help to try and diffuse the situation. Unfortunately, I was unable to stop these kids from throwing everything in their possession at the Kennedy band and football team."

The group of assailants then fled. New Orleans police and a number of adults from JFK attempted to scale a fence and pursue the youths. "During that time, a Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Deputy took action to stop the oncoming crowd and disperse the other officers," S. Ray Fontenot wrote.

An unidentified NOPD officer then began "chastising" the CSP deputy for his actions, "instead of trying to help defuse what was apparently becoming a dangerous situation for all." S. Ray Fontenot praised sheriff's deputies for their actions. "Contrary to what the Kennedy crowd may think, these officers did the best they could with the few they had. I know because I was there."

Robert Cummings, a Barbe equipment manager, submitted a written statement recounting how a young JFK coach cursed at JFK players after the game. "Something to the effect: 'Put your motherfu-- helmets on.'

"Then an older coach walked up to the team and began stating that the black man is always wrong, not the white man. He went on to state that in this particular incident, the white man had started the fight." Cummings stated that he feared the coach's rhetoric would lead to a riot that would put the nearby Barbe band in danger.

A Lake Charles couple stated that they sat on the JFK side after finding the Barbe bleachers filled to capacity. Michael Williams said in a written statement: "My wife and I did not notice anything out of the ordinary until the Barbe team scored their first touchdown. It was at this point that one of the (JFK) coaches became irate with his team and verbally abused them with profanity loud enough for us to hear in the stands. This went on throughout the game, with my wife [Stefney] Williams even witnessing the coach strike one of the players during the game."

Tia Alexander, communications director for Orleans Parish Public Schools, said she had not seen the statements, which were distributed to the media at the LHSAA hearing, and could not comment by presstime.

Barbe band director Stephen Hand said that he welcomed the Kennedy band director at half-time and the two exchanged pleasantries. During the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Barbe drum majors paid a customary welcoming visit to the JFK band and several of the New Orleans students returned to the Barbe band area.

"Each of the JFK students were introduced to the band individually and each of the students received a round of applause from my band for traveling to Lake Charles to participate in the game," Hand wrote in a statement submitted to the LHSAA. "After introductions, their band students went immediately back to their group. There was absolutely nothing said or gestured by any of my students to bring an allegation of incitement toward conflict."

But Margaret Mahoney, a captain of the Barbe color guard, indicated the JFK band members and color guard expressed disinterest in meeting the Barbe contingent. "We ... played a short song for them and they left back to their side," Mahoney wrote.

Last week, the five-member LHSAA committee met at Baton Rouge to review sportsmanship issues between the two football teams.

From the onset of the proceeding -- which had all the trappings and media coverage of a congressional hearing -- the LHSAA made it clear that what happened in the bleachers at Barbe stadium was outside its jurisdiction.

"This hearing is not John F. Kennedy High School versus Barbe High School -- that game has been played," one LHSSA commissioner told the packed meeting room as the hearing opened. The commission also emphasized it would not address any disputes that had emerged between law enforcement agencies and the two schools' communities since the game.

After more than six hours of testimony by some two dozen witnesses -- and the re-playing of videotapes of the alleged incidents -- the panel voted unanimously to place both schools on one-year probation for sportsmanship violations, including failure to control their respective spectators. Both schools also were fined $1,500 each and ordered to split the costs of the daylong hearing at the Embassy Suites hotel.

Barbe principal Charles Adkins accepted the panel's findings that Barbe spectators threw projectiles at the visiting team as it tried to board buses after the game. Kennedy assistant coach Ron Alvarez was cited for punching Barbe assistant coach Paul Demarie, a blow that resulted in a deep cut over his left eyebrow, testimony showed. Alvarez was placed on LHSSA probation and JFK was fined $500 for his alleged misconduct.

Alvarez attorney Willard Hill and Kennedy head coach Terry Freeman did not convince the panel that Demarie provoked the incident by pushing Alvarez and calling him a "nigger." Demarie denied using any racial slur. He said he put his hands on Alvarez's shoulders and told him he had to get off the field.

Three Barbe officials near the altercation testified they heard Alvarez cursing, but no racial slurs by Demarie. The Barbe officials further insisted such language is not tolerated on the team. Barbe is a majority-white school. JFK has a nearly all-black student population.

Two Calcasieu Parish sheriff's officers testified that Alvarez was cursing before the encounter and one officer stated the coach called him a "white m-f."

Alvarez faces a criminal misdemeanor charge of simple battery, following his arrest by Lake Charles police for his altercation with Demarie. Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant told the Lake Charles American Press: "There was absolutely no justification for such a vicious attack."

Alvarez attorney Hill told the LHSSA: "The truth will out if there is a close examination of the videotape."

Prior to the hearing, Orleans Parish Public Schools' athletic coordinator Frank Wilson III suspended Alvarez for violating a rule of the district's "Coaches Code of Conduct" which states: "Respect the judgment of the officials and their interpretations of the rules -- public protests can only lead to similar behavior by the players and spectators." Two NOPD officers assigned to the visitors' bleachers testified that the melee in the stands was not precipitated by the JFK coaches' acts on the field.

The LHSAA took no action against assistant coach Harris, who angrily walked onto the field to protest the officiating of the game. With 11 seconds left in the game, a referee reportedly had flagged a Kennedy player for cursing. Barbe won, 19-18.

A JFK player got between an official and Harris, and directed his coach toward the sidelines. "One of the players said, 'C'mon, Coach,'" Harris told the panel. "I said, 'Let go of me. I'm OK, but they're wrong."

Harris and Freeman both testified the head coach had asked him to attract the attention of officials before time ran out.

Immediately after leaving the field, Harris testified, he went up to the stands to try and stop eight to 12 band members from fighting with Barbe fans. At the close of the hearing, officials from both schools praised all the football players for the restraint not so easily evinced by some adults in the dispute.

Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau, who last week exchanged testy press releases with the Lake Charles Police Department, says his deputies will provide additional security when L.B. Landry High School travels to Lake Charles on Oct. 24 for a gridiron battle with another southwest Louisiana high school.

The week after the Barbe game, Kennedy played Jesuit High School at Tad Gormley Stadium. There were security officers present but no metal detectors in sight to screen students and fans. The Kennedy side of the field had few people compared to Jesuit. JFK's band was suspended. But a 96-piece band from Thurgood Marshall Middle School filled the void.

Marshall band director Charles Brooks, a Kennedy alumni, said he received a call for his band's help the day before the game. Accompanied by 18 parent chaperones, Brooks and his disciplined young musicians all volunteered their services.

"The football team needs our support and the parents said we will be here," Brooks said, proudly.

His charges sat stoically in the pounding sun between spirited performances. Charlotte Lacour, a Kennedy alum and Marshall parent-chaperone, said most of the media coverage of JFK since the Barbe incident has been unfair and "very negative."

"They have a lot of other brawls that go on that don't get reported," she said. "It's school rivalries."

Lacour says school bands need plenty of parent chaperones for out-of-town games, but notes that parental involvement "dies down around high school because kids don't want parents to know what they are doing. But the parents have to go over the kids' heads and contact the band director [to help out]."

As for the JFK-Barbe dispute, she says: "There's two or three sides to every story. There's the Barbe side, the JFK side, and what actually happened. That's called the truth." Charges Dropped

Like any evening gone bad, Rod Amis' hinged on a series of tiny variables. Some beer. His roommate's cigarette. A surly convenience-store clerk. Seven dollars. And, Amis adds, two skin colors -- his and his roommate's.

Just after midnight on May 19, Amis, who is black, was coaxed by his roommate, who is white, to get out of the house and walk to a nearby party. On their way, they stopped by the Circle K on Esplanade Avenue, where his roommate lit up a cigarette and handed Amis $7 in beer money -- Amis was planning to purchase a 12-pack for the party. The clerk wouldn't go back to the coolers, says Amis, so he exited the store and returned the $7 to his roommate.

A few feet away, two NOPD officers were sitting in a marked squad car. They believed they'd seen a "hand-to-hand transaction," and so they frisked the pair. Amis' roommate had a baggie of cocaine on him. So the cops charged his roommate with cocaine possession. They charged Amis -- who had only a pack of cigs and some money -- with drug-dealing ("Reasonable Suspicion?" Sept. 2).

Amis would spend 10 days in Orleans Parish Prison before an attorney was able to get the bail reduced from $3,000 to $400, with the caveat that Amis would take weekly drug tests. The costs began there -- every Monday, Amis would head down to the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse for a urine test, each of which cost him a $20 drug-testing fee. He also paid about $1,000 in attorney's fees. He chronicled all of this, along with his thoughts about political campaigns and other current events, for his Web magazine (www.g21.net).

On Sept. 22, Amis' Web entry described his final court appearance, where the judge announced that he was no longer under the jurisdiction of the state of Louisiana. Then Amis finally heard the words. "You are free to go. Case dismissed."

Amis says that he can't put the case behind him. "I never forget favors people have done for me and I never forget my grudges," he says. "It's one of my worst faults -- I can't forget."

Still, his daily Web to-do list before his final court appearance has changed slightly. It still includes "Pay my lawyer," and "Pay my rent," but it no longer includes "Get out of this legal merry-go-round." That's been replaced with "Start my 'After the Case' life."

click to enlarge EILEEN LOH HARRIST
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