School district: Ex-Countryside assistant coach was never a registered volunteer

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Thu. September 27, 2012 | Bob Putnam | Email

School district: Ex-Countryside assistant coach was never a registered volunteer

CLEARWATER — An assistant football coach who was never cleared by the Pinellas County School District to volunteer could lead to disciplinary actions against the principal, head coach and athletic director at Countryside High School.

Two weeks ago, Countryside removed volunteer assistant Derrick Smith for making inappropriate comments toward a varsity player. That same week, the school district’s Office of Professional Standards opened an investigation into Countryside head coach Jared Davis.

While no district official would comment on whether the incidents are related — the investigation into Davis wrapped up this week, but the results will not be available until Oct. 8 — district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez made one thing clear Thursday: “Smith was not a registered volunteer at Countryside.”

And according to district records, he never should have been considered for coaching.

Smith, 35, a former health and PE teacher at Lakewood, was labeled a “no rehire” by the school district in the wake of a 2008 investigation that found he used excessive profanity and force on a student.

So how, despite an 81-page report on Smith’s problems at Lakewood that is sitting in the school district files, did he wind up at Countryside?

When coaches apply to be a volunteer, they are required to disclose any incidents involving a law enforcement agency or criminal charges. They also must sign a coaching agreement and go through background screening that includes a check of criminal records.

Smith, who did not return calls seeking comment, has no criminal record. But according to Marquez, if a potential volunteer has been properly submitted by a school, the employee database should flag a “no rehire” and the person would initially be ineligible.

Did Countryside submit any paperwork or just ignore Smith’s past?

“Any questions about proper paperwork will be answered on Oct. 8,” Marquez said. She added that OPS recently wrapped up investigations on Countryside principal Gary Schlereth and athletic director Lewis Curtwright.

Countryside volunteer coordinator Jane Hussar, who handles the background checks for prospective volunteers, would not say if she ever saw paperwork on Smith and relayed further questions to Schlereth. Despite repeated attempts to reach him on the phone and in person, Schlereth has not responded.

Reached at practice Thursday, Davis said, “No comment. I have to protect myself,” in regards to whether he ever filled out paperwork on Smith. He also declined to talk about the OPS investigation.

The Clearwater Police Department did try to speak to Smith about the comments he made to the Countryside player.

“(Smith) invoked his rights not to speak without a lawyer,” Clearwater Public Safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said. “We did attempt to speak to him.” She added that Clearwater police interviewed some of the players, and “determined nothing criminal had occurred.”

But this is not the first time there have been issues about Smith and his treatment of students. The mother of one of Smith’s football players at Lakewood considered pressing charges against him in 2008.

According to the OPS investigation (all names other than Smith’s were redacted), Smith made sexually explicit comments about the player’s mother and they started “play punching.” Witness reports said this was common with Smith — who was also on administrative leave at the time for downloading pornography, as well as a network virus, on a school-issued laptop — and that sometimes he would push jokes too far.

The player tried to block the punches with his leg, but one blow landed hard enough to break a cell phone in his pocket.

The player, angered by the broken phone, grabbed a garbage can and threw trash into Smith’s car. Smith chased him around campus and at one point put him in a headlock. He later grabbed a golf club from his car and threatened to hit the player if he didn’t clean out his vehicle. After a profanity-laced exchange, the player said that as he walked away, Smith sped by in his car and he had to step out of the way to avoid being hit.

The player reported the incident to his mother, a Pinellas County school district employee. Before she could speak to the principal, Smith called her son, trying to apologize and offering to replace the damaged phone. In a four-page letter to the investigating officer, the player’s mother detailed her phone conversation with Smith, including the last exchange he had with her son at the school: ‘I’m not from around here, I’m from Chicago and I’ll kick your a--.’ ”

“I told him about my struggles to raise (names redacted) as decent moral beings who respect all humanity. I explained to Mr. Smith that I took my role as a (info redacted) very seriously and had no intentions of raising boys to men who would degrade women. …”

The mother considered going to the police, but trusted that the OPS would suitably punish Smith. He resigned shortly after the investigation and has not been employed in the Pinellas County school system since.

Smith is, however, employed by AMIkids Pinellas, a non-profit dropout prevention program that has a partnership with the school district and the Department of Juvenile Justice. And before coaching defensive backs at Countryside, he was an assistant football coach at Dunedin in 2010 — two years after being flagged as a “no rehire.”

AMI spokeswoman Shawna Vercher said all employees undergo background checks and that there have been no incidents with Smith.

Staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com

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