Jupiter High rugby coach's removal sparks protest
None of it surprised John Devonport: not the pre-dawn protest, the handmade T-shirts, or the brows knitted in impassioned pleas. It's what any rugby player would do, faced with the demise of his team.
"They are playing the finest game in the world," said Devonport, 62, president of the Florida Rugby Union and a rugby player for 54 years. "It's a very humiliating game at times, but the brotherhood in rugby is second to none. It's a game by gentlemen that look like hooligans."
The girls are pretty tough, too.
Students and parents staged a protest Monday in support of Jupiter High School teacher and rugby coach Sean Simon, whose contract is not being renewed next year following an audit of the team. The audit has not been released, but parents were told that it focused on how the club spent money it had raised.
The team intends to soldier on, with the same coach and with state championships looming, apart from the school that never really welcomed it in the first place.
Devonport said that is common. Rugby is a sport "played on the fringe" in about a dozen high schools across the state, he said, and usually organized by volunteers such as Simon. In addition to a boys rugby team, Devonport said, Simon has the only girls rugby team in the state.
Simon has not been disciplined and can be hired by another school. But adamant parents said they want him in Jupiter.
"We want to keep him here," said Beverly Bell-Profett, a parent and spokeswoman for a group of Simon supporters. "We are here fighting for him. We are taxpayers, and we are not happy about this."
Supporters said they will take their complaints to the school board when it meets Wednesday night.
Complexities arise because the Florida High School Athletic Association will not recognize rugby until 45 schools in the state have it which, means it's forced to operate as a club rather than an intramural sport, Devonport said.
But clubs have to follow the rules, too. And under the district's accounting procedures, school club sponsors must get approval from a principal or other administrator before spending money, as well as maintain receipts and documentation for spending the money. Sponsors also must use a school account.
The rugby team was financed solely by parents who paid about $75 for each child to participate.
At a meeting with Principal Paula Nessmith Monday, parents asked for access to the rugby account, which contains about $1,200, so they could finance the team's expenses, they said.
Nessmith said the decision rests with the district auditor, who said the principal could release the money. The school has yet to release it.
"The school wouldn't let us practice on the field," Bell-Profett said. "We couldn't have a game here. Now Jupiter High School says we're giving its money to other students."
More hurdles are sure to come, Devonport said. But roughly 400 high school students are playing rugby, and he believes that number will grow. Students are attracted because they get to play most of the game, unlike football, in which many players end up sitting on the bench, he said.