For weeks, the personality and reputation of one man fueled an entire community’s uprising. On May 3, head football coach . The district released no information about the personnel decision for days, and nothing but rumors were available to fill the void.
That is, until hundreds of Clayton students staged a school walkout May 6.
The district could no longer afford to be silent. Administrators had not anticipated how Horrell’s dismissal would disrupt the school’s academic environment, and their lack of public explanation for why one of the school’s most popular staff members had been punished fed student dissent.
On the day of the walkout, administrators sent a letter home to parents of high school football players. The letter finally confirmed what many of the rumors had already asserted: Horrell had been investigated by the administration because he was “engaged in strength and conditioning workouts with eighth-grade students.” These workouts were in violation of Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) by-laws.
The letter went on to say that the decision to dismiss Horrell was not made “lightly” and was “a necessary one in order to maintain the integrity of our athletic program.”
No details of Horrell’s infractions were provided. All the letter did was confirm what some rumors had already put forward, lending credence to the swirl of misinformation surrounding the dismissal and adding to the distrust the community had in the school administration.
With a large part of the truth still left unshared, , targeting the next Clayton Board of Education meeting on May 18. .
In the days following the board meeting, details finally began to emerge.
The district first released a copy of the official letter that the school sent to MSHSAA to self-report Horrell’s by-law violations and a copy of MSHSAA’s response. Shortly thereafter, the school board sent out a document summarizing its stance and the steps the district would take to restore order to the football program.
Although the documents were new to the public, they really didn’t provide much additional information not already publicly known. The details only seemed plentiful in contrast to the previous famine of information.
Almost a month after Horrell was dismissed, in the face of genuine community frustration, the district has yet to release a detailed explanation of just why Clayton High had to resort to the ultimate punishment administrators could inflict upon a coach.
Rather than strongly stand by their personnel decision, those in charge elected to trust in the power of time to diminish the passions of the public. As the school year comes to a close, students and parents have turned their attention elsewhere. But it remains to be seen whether this recent episode, punctuated by televised news reports on the May 6 walkout and the May 18 school board meeting, will be so easily forgotten.
But even in light of the district’s decision not to provide a detailed release on the decision to dismiss Horrell, administrators appear very willing to discuss Horrell’s case.
This past winter, Horrell instructed an after-school workout class called IS Advanced Strength/Power. The class is open to any high school student, though football players often make up the vast majority of those taking the class. I enrolled in the class as a Clayton freshman before I played football because I enjoyed weightlifting. I was the only non-football player there.
During the class, students work out primarily with each other. The instructor provides safety supervision and, at times, encouragement. On some days, the class throttles through agility drills outside of the weight room. Students in the past have received workout books to log their progress.
The class takes place in , a facility that also serves as a community recreation center. As a result, it is not uncommon to see unenrolled people working out alongside those who are enrolled. Some of these additional people are current students who don’t want to attend every day. Administrators have said that video they procured indicates some of those participating in the agility drills this past year were middle school students.
High school administrators received notification of the middle school students’ participation by staff at the Center on Feb. 16. Principal Louise Losos of Clayton High said a middle school student’s parent asked why the student could not get into the workout area for free when he was asked to pay the facility’s entrance fee. A football coach who works at the middle school had apparently been providing workout-area access to some of the middle school students so they would not have to pay to enter.
High school athletic director Bob Bone immediately put a stop to middle school student participation in the after-school class, states the letter that the district sent to MSHSAA. The high school administration then began an investigation into the matter.
But the letter doesn’t list the steps the district took to end middle school student involvement in the after-school class. Jake Brown, a middle school student, was captured on videotape participating in the high school class at the Center. His father, Andy Brown, sent me an email he received Feb. 17, the day after high school administrators became aware of middle school students’ participation.
Horrell sent the email to a number of parents along with Losos, Bone and Daniel McMullen, an assistant coach with the high school football team and a member of the staff. It appears Horrell sent the note on behalf of Bone, whose name and title appear at the bottom of the message.
The email was addressed to parents and read: “Just a reminder that although the Center of Clayton is open to all members, only Clayton High School students enrolled in IS Fitness or IS Advanced Strength/Power can receive instruction from our CHS staff or participate in class activities.”
When Andy Brown received the e-mail, he thought it pertained to his daughter, a student at Clayton High, not to his son, Jake. He told her to stay away from the oddly named classes.
Andy had no idea that when Jake was going to the Center after school, he was actually participating in a high school class. Both thought that Jake was just getting a chance to meet his future teammates.
Jake never received any class materials, nor did he receive the attention that class instructors gave the high school students. He thought that the middle school and high school students were pretty separated throughout his time there.
On a few occasions, Jake threw a football around with last season’s high school quarterback, Chase Haslett. But the coaches were never involved, and Jake knew Haslett was already preparing for college football.
To make the situation even more complicated, Jake is a member of the Center, and he worked out and shot hoops there often. He saw many of the other middle school students involved in the MSHSAA case there on non-school days, too. As an active teenager, exercising was not abnormal for Jake.
Andy, believing his son was attending informal football sessions at the Center, was really in no position to understand the email seemingly written by the high school athletic director on Feb. 17. The term “IS” was used as if it would be understood by all to mean “independent study.” But Andy was unfamiliar with the abbreviation. He never considered that the class Bone was discussing took place outside of normal school hours and that his son was involved.
Jake and several other middle school students continued to go to the Center after school through February. Jake only stopped going once his baseball season started. His friends continued going well after he had stopped.
“If I had been told this was illegal, I would have stopped,” Jake said. There really weren’t many signs that something prohibited was going on. Jake said that by the time he got to the Center on most days, Horrell had already left. And most of the time, Jake wouldn’t even participate in the group workouts with the high school students, electing to lift on his own and play basketball with his friends.
But Jake readily concedes that a video holds the advantage over his memory. And high school administrators maintain that Horrell can be seen on tape conducting group drills with high school and middle school students, Jake included.
When I asked Jake what he thought the videotape showed, hehad no idea.
“I can’t imagine the tape being with Horrell," Jake said.
If the email is correct in stating that only students enrolled in the class could participate in the group activities, it’s a wonder why it was not sent to the entire student body of the School District of Clayton, or even the Clayton community. Jake saw other members of the community working out in the weight room when he was there. And a number of non-enrolled high school students participated in class activities, too.
Anat Gross—a senior at Clayton High, a four-year football player and my sister—worked out with the class during her offseason but was not enrolled. She also doesn’t remember seeing middle school students participate in the class activities this past year, though she did see them playing basketball.
Cody Peck, also a senior at Clayton, doesn’t remember any middle school students attending this past year, either. Like Gross, Peck did not enroll in the class this past year so he wouldn’t have to attend every day.
But Peck said he can somewhat sympathize with Jake’s situation. Peck recalled how he and a few of his friends participated in class activities during the 2006-07 school year when they were in eighth grade.
Still, it does not matter whether other middle school students participated in these class activities in years past, or if the most recent group of eighth-grade students participated regularly when it comes to MSHSAA.
When Dr. Kerwin Urhahn, MSHSAA's executive director, learned of the situation from Losos, he determined that a violation of the by-laws had occurred this past winter. The penalties for the violations were not trivial: The group of eighth-grade students who just wanted to better themselves were now in jeopardy of being suspended from any interscholastic competition for the next year.
Jake, along with many other people in the Clayton community, is upset with the way the district handled the situation.
“I’m upset with Clayton for turning coach (Horrell) in, and now I may not be able to play football freshman year," Jake said. "I’ve worked my heart out just to have the opportunity to play for Clayton High School.”
Years of anticipation compelled Jake and his friends to work out, to take hold of the opportunities presented to them, to better themselves athletically. Those years of anticipation were supposed to end as the summer began, as eighth-grade students became high school freshmen, as middle school football players entered the world of high school sports.
They came to these classes not as students but as kids driven by a genuine love of the game.
They came so one day they could play harder. They left unable to play at all.