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Principal abused power with coach

That's the finding of an internal inquiry. The Countryside High administrator is disciplined.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008

Countryside High School principal Gary Schlereth received a letter of caution in his personnel file.

Countryside High School's principal was disciplined after an internal investigation showed he abused his power in an attempt to get his son more playing time on the school's baseball team.

A letter of caution was put in Gary Schlereth's personnel file Dec. 7.

The letter says Schlereth demonstrated poor judgment when he confronted a coach in a classroom to discuss a personal issue. Schlereth also delayed the investigation and subsequent discipline of a student athlete who pushed a volunteer coach, the letter said.

Schlereth did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

An initial investigation completed May 7 conducted by Pinellas County Schools athletics director Nick Grasso cleared Schlereth of any wrongdoing. But several baseball coaches pushed for the matter to be reopened.

Some of those coaches said the incident raised the larger question of whether a principal's child should be allowed to attend the school where he or she works.

"If you are a parent, you are a parent," said Darnell Coles, who was Countryside's baseball coach for about five years but resigned midseason to work as a manager in the Washington Nationals organization.

"The difference in my dealing with the situation is that I have morals," Coles said. "I would make it harder for my son. He would have to be far better than the rest so there would be no questions."

Many of the baseball coaches at Countryside High said Schlereth leaned on them when his son, Nick, didn't play. The coaches interviewed said Nick wasn't a very good player and shouldn't have made the team.

"I thought I could make him better," Coles said. "Ultimately, if you look at the big picture, he wasn't good enough."

Coles said he alerted Grasso at the beginning of the 2006-07 season that he was concerned about potential pressure from Schlereth concerning his son. Grasso said he remembered having a conversation with Coles but didn't specifically recall the topic.

"Of all the seven coaches, I was the only who thought that Nick should stay on the team," Coles said. "I just thought it would make things easier for us, keep some of the pressure off. I'll take the hit for that one."

Coles said he kept several players with questionable skills because he thought playing a varsity sport would look good on their college resumes, give them the opportunity to be around the game and help build camaraderie. At one point, there were nearly 30 players on the team.

Coles typically allowed seniors to play because it's their last year on the team. But halfway through the 2006-07 season, coaches gave more playing time to some of the younger and more talented athletes.

"The kids wanted to start winning some games," said Randy Knorr, also a former Countryside coach and now a manager in the Nationals organization. "The parents didn't like it."

Including, apparently, Schlereth.

On March 16, Schlereth went into baseball coach and teacher Richard Ranick's classroom, took off his school identification badge and said he was talking to him as a parent and a friend.

"They discussed his son's playing time and why he had been benched for a few games," according to a summary provided by Rick Stelljes, an investigator with the school system's Office of Professional Standards.

Ranick said Schlereth "went off into a profanity-laced tirade, saying my son is getting f---ed," the report said.

In a separate incident, a student assaulted assistant coach D.J. Coles, the son of Darnell Coles on April 17. The Clearwater police were called and the student was arrested. But it took a month for Schlereth to discipline the student.

When the school system inquired about the student's punishment, there were only three or four days remaining in the school year, so the student was given in-school suspension for those days. He was also allowed to transfer to East Lake High School in a nondisciplinary manner.

"Anybody else would have been suspended for 10 days automatically," said Jeff Ciszkowski, a former volunteer coach who is now an assistant at Dunedin High School. "Basically, we're saying it's okay to attack volunteers and those of us who are working hard for the students."

Darnell Coles said he feels all the hard work he put into building the program seems destroyed. He is also disappointed in what he believes was a lack of concern when his son was assaulted.

"We had some decent players and we had coaches who had professional experience working with the players in an effort to get them better," said Coles, who has another son at Countryside who plans to play baseball this season.

"All the hard work, time, effort and money raised," he said. "I hope Schlereth can sleep at night. I certainly can."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at

[Last modified January 9, 2008, 22:11:22]

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