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Pinellas schools seek new profanity policy

After disciplining Lakewood High's football coach, the board asks for rules to cover future incidents.

Published February 9, 2005

Long a part of some high school sports programs, profanity may be on the way out for Pinellas County coaches.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Tuesday that the district will formally instruct coaches not to use curse words when addressing student athletes.

"There are better ways to communicate with our youngsters than using words that are offensive," he said.

The change came at the urging of School Board members as they pondered the fate of Brian Bruch, the Lakewood High School football coach suspended for telling a player to get his "black a--" back into a huddle.

The board voted 4-3 to accept an agreement that Bruch be suspended for 10 days without pay, lose his coaching position and be transferred to Dunedin High School to resume his 23-year career as a math teacher. Bruch also will be required take two workshops titled "Celebrating Diversity" and "Be Safe Not Sorry."

It was board member Mary Russell who started a larger discussion about profanity on district athletic fields, calling it unacceptable. Several board members agreed and soon Wilcox chimed in, admitting he had used profanity and regretted it in his days as a basketball coach at the middle school, high school and college levels.

The tongue can slip in the "hypercharged environment" of sports, the superintendent said.

With that, a new policy was born - the latest action of a School Board intent on bringing more order and civility to district schools. Two weeks ago, the board asked Wilcox to devise a dress code that may require uniforms or uniform-style clothing.

In an interview Tuesday, Wilcox said he probably would amend the district's policy, send out a formal statement banning profanity and reinforce the message with reminders.

He said discipline would depend on the details of each infraction. He also made it clear that his idea is to ban only "profanity directed at a child."

He acknowledged that School Board members might disagree when he brings his plans back to them for approval.

"They may have a very different opinion of that - that you can't just swear in general," he said. "If that's the case, we're in big trouble here."

Neighboring districts in Hillsborough and Pasco counties have no specific bans on profanity for coaches.

The new policy would cut against the grain of a society increasingly given to coarse language.

More than 60 percent of Americans said they swear or cuss in public, according to a 2003 survey conducted for American Demographics. The figure was 74 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The frequency of profanity on prime time TV increased more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2001, according to a study released last year by two Florida State University professors.

Vice President Dick Cheney provided anecdotal evidence last year when he used the F-word with a Senate colleague.

Some coaches and teachers say the use of profanity is sometimes needed to relate to the younger people with whom they deal.

"We're not coaching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," Bruch said recently, discussing his case. "And anybody who has an expectation that you can coach kids by saying "gosh' and "golly' and "darn it' and "come over here, honey,' that's not going to cut it. Because you're not going to get the respect of these kids if you can't speak their language, if you can't speak to them in terms that they recognize and that they understand."

Wilcox rejected that notion.

"We're just going to have to get past that and say, "You know what? It isn't that way. We're role models in our role as coaches."'

Some say a new policy is not the answer. "I really don't think it's necessary," said Jim Mewha, who has coached 36 years, including 11 years as head football coach at St. Petersburg High, where he now coaches track.

"There's going to be some isolated incidents in schools that have to be dealt with," he said. "We've got 16 high schools. I think you're going to find most of them don't have a problem with profanity. You don't want to turn around and treat everyone like they're doing it."

Darren Hammond, assistant principal in charge of athletics at Boca Ciega High, said he brings coaches in for a talk when incidents of profanity are reported.

The first step is an oral warning. If the problem persists, he said he takes further action.

"I don't agree with it, but it does happen," Hammond said. "It can be real brutal. I think it needs to be monitored."

Hammond said coaches are told to be careful about what they say to kids. "If a teacher uses profanity in the classroom, it's dealt with," he said. "It's the same with coaches. Even though it's a different arena, it's still a school situation."

School Board members, all of them former teachers, said the rules should be the same in athletics as they are in the classroom.

The board was less certain about what to do with Bruch, who has said he regrets the remark and realizes it was hurtful to the boy who complained.

Wilcox initially recommended firing the coach, calling his statement a racial remark.

But after receiving calls and letters of support for Bruch from members of St. Petersburg's black community, Wilcox said he became convinced the remark was not meant as a racial slur. Many "poured their hearts out," Wilcox said, telling how Bruch had sacrificed to help black students.

Wilcox changed his recommendation to a suspension, but board members Russell, Linda Lerner and Janet Clark said they were troubled that Bruch was being punished at all.

Lerner said she didn't understand why he couldn't continue as the football coach at Lakewood.

"I'm wondering if this coach has been made an example of," Clark said. "This man is losing a lot."

Wilcox bristled at the comment, saying: "We didn't make an example of anybody. I didn't go on the field and tell a young man to get his black a-- over to the huddle. ... He made the error in judgment, not me as the superintendent. We don't try to send signals with discipline."

Wilcox's use of the word "a--" triggered a momentary crisis when the district employees taping the meeting for later broadcast asked whether the word should be bleeped out.

The board decided to let the remark air.

Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 9, 2005, 00:45:08]

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