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    Student athletes' lawsuit to go to federal court

    The school district has the high school seniors' case moved. The teens' lawyer is unhappy with the delay.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001


    Two hours before a scheduled court hearing Monday on the fate of two Palm Harbor University High School baseball players kicked out of school, a Pinellas County School District attorney filed a motion and had the case moved to federal court.

    An attorney for the two students, Sherwood "Flip" Coleman of Clearwater, questioned the district's motivation for the last-minute filing and said it might deny the students the opportunity for a court hearing before the end of the school year.

    Seniors Chris Pachik and Brian Pafundi were suspended for 10 days and reassigned to an alternative school for the rest of the school year after holding a teammate down during a controversial rough-housing incident on a team trip to Fort Lauderdale.

    On March 29, the two students sued the Pinellas County School Board.

    The lawsuit, filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, says the school did not afford the students procedural due process. It also says that principal Alec Liem meted out an arbitrary and unfairly harsh punishment.

    Their lawsuit asked a judge to allow them to return to school so they could participate in graduation June 7.

    School district attorney John Bowen said he was preparing for the case during the weekend when "it became apparent to me that this was solely a case involving federal law." Some of the issues raised were alleged violations of the students' federal constitutional rights.

    Bowen said after conferring with other district attorneys, he decided a hearing in federal court was in their best interest.

    The case was scheduled to come before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Catherine M. Harlan on Monday afternoon so she could consider a request for a preliminary injunction to allow Pafundi and Pachik to return to school.

    Bowen said no such decision would have been made Monday because the school district planned to offer at least a half-day's worth of testimony to support of its case. The only decision, he said, would have been to set a court date.

    Harlan had previously suggested a full hearing might not be possible until June, "when everything would've been moot," Bowen said.

    Coleman said the federal issues in his complaint are issues the state courts can consider.

    "We'd be arguing the same case, the same law ... whether we were in state court or federal court," he said.

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