The firing of Coach Melissa

Author: Bob Norman, Reporter, bnorman@Local10.com
Published On: Oct 07 2012 10:33:04 AM EDT   Updated On: Oct 08 2012 11:16:26 AM EDT

Well now it's gone international.

The Daily Mail in London has published a story on what it calls the "'Mean Girls' high school cheerleading coach" of Broward County.

That is, of course, Melissa Prochilo, the now-former cheerleading coach of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Good Morning America had a piece on her Friday morning tossing around allegations of a diabolical-sounding "pay to play scheme" and the old mainstay in this case, bullying.

When I first heard about this story weeks ago, believe me, I wanted to find evidence of abuse, a looted booster club, and mean girls running afoul. That's a great story. The problem: There's no evidence behind it. Not one but two investigations cleared Prochilo of wrongdoing.

I heard from both sides early on and was trying to sort it out when a BrowardBeat blog came out with a "school board shocker" about Prochilo's alleged tyranny (headline: "Cheerleaders bullied and staff does nothing!"). Then the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald published shallow, mostly one-sided stories on the matter. Here's how the Herald article began:

The allegations read like a Hollywood script: a cutthroat high school cheerleading coach who bullies team members and berates injured cheerleaders to walk it off . A booster club that demands parents fork over thousands of dollars. Cheerleaders who forge their parents’ signatures to go on secret field trips. Parents who call the cops on moms they don’t agree with.

Hollywood script? That reminds of how School Board Member Katie Leach -- who has inexplicably gone on her own crusade against Prochilo -- described it. She said it was like a Lifetime movie. Unfortunately for Leach, her role in the real-life story is a very dubious one.

It's quite a powerful word, bullying, and it should be. Young lives are destroyed by it. But that word has no place in this story. If anything the word has been used to bully Prochilo, who started coaching at Douglas High just last year, out of a job by a small group of parents who got Leach's ear.

There is absolutely no evidence that Prochilo, who has four children of her own, ever bullied anyone. In fact, if you listen to, oh, dozens upon dozens of people inside the cheerleading program and across Douglas High you'll hear over and over again that she's one of the nicest people around and most dedicated coaches you'll ever find, a person the school board should celebrate instead of vilify.

But school board staff was right to investigate complaints leveled by the anti-Prochilo moms. And the district found that each and every one of those allegations against the coach was unfounded.

For instance, you have the sensational "forgery" allegation -- which amounts to some of the girls allegedly signing their parent's name on a slip to get into an outside gym so they could practice on short notice. The allegation that Prochilo helped facilitate that dastardly crime is steadfastly denied by Prochilo and it was fully investigated by the School Board's Special Investigations Unit, which cleared her.

But what about the team's monstrous booster club? That's where Prochilo allegedly "masterminded a pay-to-play scheme costing parents thousands of dollars." This allegation was also investigated and all the money, about $69,000, has been accounted for. Repeat: There is no evidence any money was spent on anything but the girls and the team.

Much of the money for the 58 cheerleaders was spent on their own team trips, supplies, shoes, etc. Somehow the fact that the booster club -- over which Prochilo had no check-signing authority -- spent money on a choreographer ($3,000) and a stunt coach ($600 a month) has been cast as a scandal. But the team has paid for outside facilities and choreography and extra coaching help for years. They've gone on trips to places like Orlando for years and yes, the team had to pay for it.

The girls in years past had to pay monthly fees to use a private gym called Cheer Florida, but Prochilo discontinued that arrangement at what she says were savings for the team. As it happens, the pair of mothers who began a revolt against her in January were both loyalists to the Cheer Florida gym where their daughters belonged (at a cost of thousands of dollars a year). Prochilo and many of the cheer moms say the believe Prochilo's decision to leave that gym is the root cause of the entire conflict.

All high school sports teams need to raise money for their games and competitions. Is this an ideal way for public schools to operate? Not in the least, but it's the reality for Prochilo and coaches across the county. To persecute Prochilo for the booster club is ridiculous.

But then this entire saga is a theater of the absurd. It would be a comedy if it not for the fact that a devoted coach has lost her job, a team has lost its leader, the entire school has been dragged through the mud, and the school board has once again interfered in a matter that it never should have touched.

It's hard to blame the handful of mothers who have leveled accusations. When things aren't going parents' way on a team, there's a lot of emotion in play and they sometimes go after the coach. Cheerleading is a big deal these days, especially for those that go to private gyms at high costs and many hours in hopes of scholarships and other glory.

The Douglas principal, Washington Collado, clearly tried to referee the situation. At one point he restricted the most, uh, enthusiastic accusatory mother, Joann Gavin, from campus. Gavin has been a ringleader of the anti-Prochilo faction. It was Gavin's outburst after a competition on January 3 that kicked off the little revolt against the coach in earnest. The team had come in last place and Gavin's daughter had been hurt at the team's previous practice. Gavin cleared her daughter to compete the next day but afterward lashed out at an assistant coach in front of the entire team, cursing and pointing her finger at the coach, according to numerous witnesses.

At ensuing meetings with the principal and others Gavin and another, Tammy Tornari, aimed their anger at the booster club. A meeting concerning the booster club's finances in the principal's office on February 1 degenerated into a near-yelling match.

"[Gavin] was most aggressive," Principal Collado wrote in a letter about the meeting, "and prior to asking the questions, laced it with innuendos, sarcasm and accusations. By the time she got to the questions, it was more more an accusation than a question."

Booster club moms and Prochilo tried to answer Gavin's questions "in the midst of disruption and comments, which escalated," Collado continued. "I intervened on three different occasions and re-established the necessity for civility, to no avail."  

In March, one of the booster club moms, Cindy Beach, alleged that Gavin followed her in her vehicle outside the school. Police were called and a report was made.

Collado disbanded the booster club and restricted Gavin's access to campus. Gavin would come to level some 31 allegations against Prochilo. Of these the Special Investigations Unit deemed the forgery complaint -- which occurred months before Gavin's flare-up -- worthy of investigation. Prochilo was cleared of wrongdoing. In May it was time for tryouts for this year's team.

Despite all the allegations, the daughters of Gavin and Tornari tried out for Prochilo's team. Why they would still want to be on a cash-grabbing, bullying team is a question only they can answer. To make sure there was no controversy at the tryouts Collado barred Prochilo from attending the tryouts and assigned an independent team of judges to do the job. All the girls trying out were identified by numbers rather than names to avoid any hint of impropriety. And as it happened, Tornari's daughter didn't make the team and Gavin's daughter was relegated to the JV squad. Gavin's daughter then quit the team and now both girls cheer exclusively for Cheer Florida.

Meanwhile an extensive second investigation of Prochilo and the school was coming to a close with all the allegations coming back unfounded. Superintendent Robert Runcie looked at the evidence last month and, following the recommendation of the principal and some of his top staff, he recommended that Prochilo remain as the cheerleading coach.

Remember Leach? She zealously took the side of the anti-Prochilo mothers and had them attend a board meeting on September 19. Then she made a motion to discuss an agenda item regarding supplemental pay positions -- one of which was Prochilo's cheerleading job. Several board members voiced concern about it since they aren't supposed to interfere in personnel matters. There was also concern about the fact that Prochilo wasn't there to defend herself.

Runcie, board members, and the board attorney all urged postponing the matter to get more information and have both sides present. Runcie also told the board that there had been no probable cause found against Prochilo and that he had no reason or standing to change his decision to recommend her employment.

Gracie Diaz, the head of Human Resources, told the board that Prochilo had been cleared of wrongdoing and that any remaining investigation had to do with policies at the school, not the coach.

But Leach bulled forward, telling the board that there students in the audience that had missed school and had been waiting there all day to speak, which wasn't even true.

Yet the board after a long and confusing debate decided that the anti-Prochilo women would still be allowed to address the board as "public input." At one point, Board Member Maureen Dinnen washed her hands of the entire matter. "I don't want to get sued," she said to her fellow board members. "They can sue you."

Four mothers and Tornari's eldest daughter, who had graduated last year, went on to give tearful testimony about bullying and pay-to-play and forgery and other allegations for which Prochilo had already been cleared.

The board ate it up. After those speeches, Board Member Nora Rupert, whose daughter had been seriously bullied in the past, nearly broke down into tears and told the mothers that she stood with them. School Board Chairwoman Ann Murray immediately said she didn't feel Prochilo should be allowed to coach anymore. Leach said it was imperative that the girls on the team be "safe" and that she wanted Prochilo to be quickly fired. Then the board directed Runcie to reconsider his recommendation for the coach.

Runcie, after being so directed by his bosses, did just that and a few days later he reversed his decision. He terminated Coach Prochilo after all.

Runcie has refused to discuss why he made that decision. At last week's board meeting, Prochilo's supporters -- including about 40 tearful cheerleaders -- packed the meeting room and passionately defended the coach while blasting Leach, Runcie and the board.

Only two board members -- Laurie Levinson and Dinnen -- said they didn't support Runcie's reversal. The rest said it was his decision to make and they wouldn't get in the way of it. Runcie and the board members then lectured the frustrated crowd about how they had to "heal" their community.

"Let me say when you look at the big picture this is absolutely positively not about the coach," said Runcie. "This is about a community."

Yet the community was steadfastly behind Prochilo -- and she was the one losing her job.

"The real leadership that we need is for the parents in this community to figure out how to move forward," Runcie told the crowd. "I can’t do that for you … you need to set an example for your children about how to live in this world you live in the same community." 

The shell-schocked cheerleaders present had not only been given one of the worst civics lessons imaginable but left the meeting without a coach. Prochilo left the meeting without a job.

So how much money was she going to make for a season of work? About $2,000, $1,400 after taxes, or as she calculates, about a dime an hour for her work. You'd think a mastermind would make a little more than that.

So where does it go from here? Well, the Douglas High community continues to mobilize behind Prochilo. They are organizing a rally/fundraiser to finance an attorney (she says she never hired one before because she never dreamed it would come to this). Lisa Maxwell, the head of the principals' association, says she believes the group is now aiming their ire at Principal Collado and she says that her association will back him with everything it has. She calls the firing of Prochilo an injustice that should worry every coach, teacher, and administrator in the district.

And Prochilo? She says she just wants to clear her name -- and coach again.

As for the media, both Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew are calling about the story. Let's hope they handle it better than the school board did.