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Part 2 of 4: Social Media Spawned Horrell Backlash

Clayton eighth-grader Jake Brown found himself caught in the middle of a debate over football coach Sam Horrell's dismissal. In turn, he formed a group on Facebook and found a legion of supporters.

May 4 was a surreal Wednesday at . The news of Sam Horrell’s dismissal from the football head coaching position was saturating teenagers’ text-message inboxes. The rumor mill was churning at full capacity, unchecked by any official correspondence from school administration.

General gossip held that Horrell was caught on tape working out with eighth-grade students at , a gym facility connected to the high school that also serves as the community recreation center. These workouts were said to be in violation of Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) by-laws.

One of the eighth-graders was Jake Brown. When his father, Andy Brown, got wind that his son was at the middle of the developing storm, he got in touch with Horrell, who confirmed that Jake had been recorded on the video tape scrutinized by high school administrators. Andy then contacted Clayton High Principal Louise Losos, who also confirmed Jake’s appearance on the tape.

Andy couldn’t help but wonder how his son’s name had entered into the public discussion about Horrell’s dismissal.

“I know I didn’t give his name,” Losos said. She is confident that the other administrators didn’t leak Jake’s name, either.

It’s possible the high school students connected the dots themselves. Jake, a quarterback, was one of the more prominent and consistent eighth-graders working out at The Center of Clayton during the period in question. He wouldn’t have been a strange sight to the high school students participating in an after-school physical education class in the same gym area.

Not surprisingly, students appeared to be discussing an urgent high school football matter on Facebook as early as the evening of May 3, only hours after Horrell had been dismissed and hours before Jake’s name entered the fray.

Only a select few will likely ever know just how Jake’s name was so quickly attached to Horrell’s dismissal. In any event, Jake’s involvement was the only piece of the puzzle to be confirmed by the administration by May 4.

As the rumors continued to swirl, Jake did not stand idly by. The night of May 4, Jake started a Facebook group called "Bring Back Coach Horrell." Although he didn’t know Horrell well, he said, he still “had a lot of respect for him.” As an eighth-grade student preparing himself for high school football, everything about the high school program, including its figurehead, was the stuff of legend.

But one can’t help but wonder if the rumors had weighed on this young man, rumors that had already made the name Jake Brown well known at a high school where he had yet to take a class.

Jake didn’t need redemption; he did nothing wrong. But if the DNA of a quarterback was activated within him—if he felt an urgency to somehow take control of an adverse situation—the evolution of the Facebook group he started couldn’t help but give him some emotional solace.

Students, parents, alumni, relatives and curious observers flocked to the group. The comments section of the webpage filled with supportive narratives about Horrell, a number of frustrated outbursts and personal attacks against school administrators and, in short order, a plan for the student walkout that occurred May 6.

Today, more than 850 people have joined the Facebook group in support of Horrell. The administration expected a backlash, Losos said, but “I think we underestimated the Facebook world we all live in.”

The rapid organization of youth via social media is among the newest challenges to traditional sources of authority. In this developing power relationship, the public’s toleration of the unexplained, the nonsensical and the seemingly dictatorial is at a bare minimum.

The Facebook-fueled May 6 walkout was covered by the major news outlets in St. Louis, but nothing came of it. Students eventually returned to class, still lacking a satisfactory explanation as to why Horrell would no longer be coaching football at Clayton.

The Facebook group members began making plans for a new date: the upcoming meeting of the Clayton Board of Education. On May 18, a couple hundred people sat in the high school library, many donning blue shirts with the words “Bring Back Coach Horrell” emblazoned in orange on the front.

The board members took their seats around a makeshift table setup in front of a crowd of Horrell’s supporters. Silence overtook the room as the pivotal moment in the Horrell saga began.

Board President Sonny Buttar opened the meeting with prepared remarks about Horrell’s situation that greatly diminished any hope those in attendance had of finding a satisfactory resolution.

Her statements also took many at the meeting aback. For the first time, the district publicly revealed the stakes of the MSHSAA violations: the eighth-graders at the center of the investigation had been ruled ineligible from participating in interscholastic competition for a full year. The district was appealing that ruling to MSHSAA.

The meeting then opened to public comment.

The first two speakers discussed dissatisfaction with district policies regarding potential employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and the lack of services offered to a specific category of elementary school students so determined by district testing. Neither speaker said anything about Horrell, but both received loud applause at the conclusion of their remarks. As far as the crowd was concerned, this would be a night reserved for district criticism.

More than a dozen people went to the microphone in support of Horrell. Some speakers questioned the MSHSAA rules. Others spoke of Horrell’s strong character. Two asked for changes to district policy.

Underlying every comment was a current of confusion—no one knew exactly why Horrell had been dismissed. They just knew it had happened. And with Horrell sitting there so conscientiously, so present, no one could think for a moment that this man, legendary for his gregarious kindness, could be deserving of such seemingly ruthless punishment.

When the public remarks ended, the board kept its initial promise. After thanking the students for coming, Buttar affirmed that the dismissal of Horrell had been “reconsidered and reconsidered and reconsidered” by the school board. The board then proceeded to the first item on its agenda.

There would be no further board discussion of Horrell. To the school board, the case was over and done with.

Board Treasurer Susan Bradley Buse further clarified the school board’s position in a follow-up interview.

“We as the board determined that (the school administrators) acted within their purview,” Buse said. Whether individual board members approved of the decision or not didn’t matter. They were all limited to only determining whether the decision had been made “in a professional manner.”

As the school board moved on, Horrell’s supporters lingered for a few minutes before standing up, almost in unison, to stage a walkout from school once more. This time, there would be no trip to the football field. Instead, a long line of students formed to offer what had the air of farewell hugs to a coach they would always remember.

Like so many other reporters, I asked Horrell for an interview. And, like so many other reporters, I received his standard response: Horrell does not want to play out his struggles with the district through the media. He wants to remain as professional as possible through the challenges he faces.

The difference between me and the other reporters clamoring for Horrell’s side of the story is our personal relationship. I’ve known Horrell for nine years. I played football for him at Clayton for three years. Yet even to me, he would not speak a word.

That night, after almost all of his supporters and the local news teams had left, Horrell stayed behind. The board was taking up a physical education item on the agenda, and Horrell remained with his coworkers through a presentation on a more integrated curriculum.

After the night of May 18, there was no chance for Horrell to ever coach the Clayton Greyhounds again. On the surface, his tenure was bookended by two trips to the Missouri state playoffs. But his true effect was the impression he made on those who followed him, through the thin and thick.

Just one day after the board meeting and more than two weeks after Horrell was relieved of his coaching duties, the district finally released details about why it had all come to this.

Andy Brown May 26, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Elad, great piece so far. To me it's a stretch to assume it was a complete guess on the students parts as to Jakes participation. Jake is not Tom Brady.... He was simply one of 8 to 12 8th graders in attendance. His name was circulated through the school well before I confirmed it with Sam and Louise. My daughter was receiving texts by 10am referancing Jake and video tape. The issue is not that louis said it or did not say it. The issue is Louise is responsible to protect Jake and work hard to make sure nobody said it. He is 14.... He does not need the weight of the coach being fired on his young shoulders. Admin protects kids... That's their job, especially innocent ones who had no clue they were doing anything wrong.

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