A joke that didn’t sound so funny to adults lost a coach her job, but on Wednesday, her athletes came to the Schenectady City School District Board of Education to beg for her reinstatement.
“She’s helped so many kids,” pleaded indoor track manager Jayana LaFountain, 17. “She means a lot to me.”
Her coach, Lisa Paparone, allegedly teased a sensitive sophomore last Tuesday because he had skipped Monday’s practice. School officials sent home a letter saying Paparone was suspended for “humiliating” a student-athlete. Paparone has since resigned, district Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
But the boy who had been teased — who did not identify himself Wednesday — told the school board he wasn’t upset by his coach’s words. He didn’t describe the phrasing, except to say she was telling him not to skip practice again.
He and his teammates said Paparone knew them all well and knew how to encourage them without crossing the line to verbal abuse.
The student at the heart of the controversy was distraught, breaking down as he told the board he blamed himself for the suspension.
“My actions weren’t supposed to hurt anyone else, especially not the coaches, their jobs,” he said.
A fellow athlete, 16-year-old Devin Fitzgerald, tried to comfort him as he cried. Both boys said the coach had personally encouraged them.
“She has changed all our lives,” Fitzgerald said. “She has constantly pushed us to do our best.”
Devin’s mother, Susan Fitzgerald, said her son had been bullied when he was younger and was “very sensitive” to instances of bullying. If he said the coach wasn’t mean, she said, she believed him.
“She jokingly reprimanded [a student],” Susan Fitzgerald said. “It’s the language the students understand. The student got the message, and they all laughed.”
All of the track team members said the student did not seem humiliated, and they said she did not enforce attendance blindly.
One student told the board Paparone supported her last year when she entered rehab for alcoholism — at age 17. When outpatient rehab appointments conflicted with practice, the girl said Paparone excused her.
Athletes can be kicked off the team for absences, but she was allowed to stay. She said she has now been sober for eight months.
School board members refused to discuss the matter openly, but scheduled a closed-door executive session. Still, Spring did not hold out much hope for a reinstatement. He noted that Paparone had chosen to resign and added that the board would not be swayed by the students’ pleas.
“Our personnel processes and procedures and decision-making, they are designed to provide openness and objective thinking and are not based on popular opinion,” he said.