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    Student athletes' case goes federal

    The school district has two Palm Harbor University High athletes'case moved. The teens' lawyer is unhappy with the delay.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 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.

    The school district is entitled to have the case heard in federal court, Bowen said, and 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 in 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.

    Bowen argued the switch to federal court might actually hasten the process.

    Coleman said that argument "rings hollow."

    "If they had a problem, this is something we could have cleared up 18 days ago," Coleman said. "The issues on that haven't changed since I filed this complaint."

    Coleman says Harlan could have ruled on the request for a preliminary injunction Monday, and the school district's motion to change courts only delays things. That delay could deprive the students of attending their final days of school. Both students have opted to finish school via tele-school, rather than by attending an alternative school.

    "My understanding was that we were going to have our day in court and decide those issues today (Monday)," Coleman said. "They (Pafundi and Pachik) are losing things they can't get back."

    Coleman noted that although he raised some federal issues in his complaint on behalf of the students, they are issues the state courts can consider.

    "We'd be arguing the same case, the same law -- about the same rights and issues of fundamental fairness -- whether we were in state court or federal court," he said.

    "I'm really, really disappointed for my clients," Coleman said. "They had looked forward to this day. It should be the best time in their lives. Judging on how they reacted when I broke the news today, it's the worst time of their lives."

    Coleman said he will now file an emergency motion for injunctive relief in federal court.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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