Answers sought for infractions

Students protest at Lawrence Academy

By Mike Carraggi
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2011

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GROTON — The Lawrence Academy football players who worked hard to win the last two Independent School League championships are not going to let them be taken away without a fight, or at least an explanation.

The students yesterday held a silent sit-down in protest of sanctions imposed on the school by the Independent School League this week, prompting Lawrence Academy to finally shed some light on the reasons the team was punished.

A statement released by the school said headmaster Scott Wiggins cited “issues surrounding need-based financial aid practices and offseason activity’’ while speaking at a weekly student assembly yesterday morning, after which most of the students staged their protest by not leaving.

One player, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expounded on what he believed the infractions were.

“There was a football player who the school couldn’t supply the full amount of financial aid for,’’ said the player. “So the administration approached Coach [Mike] Taylor and requested a general donation, with the understanding that it would go towards paying the rest.’’

In Lawrence Academy’s statement, Wiggins said the school funded several athletes “beyond their demonstrated need.’’

The admission came after one of the sanctions directed the school to “affirm in writing [that] . . . all varsity student-athletes who receive financial support from the school do so using a need-based analysis and not a merit-based scholarship.’’

The student also explained the “offseason activity’’ in question, saying that ISL athletic directors stated that Lawrence Academy practiced earlier than 20 days before the start of the season, a punishable offense in the league.

The player divulged that the team, while under then-coach Taylor, held weightlifting sessions with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers strength and conditioning coach Mike Morris in the summer.

“The rules dictate that a practice becomes official with the presence of a coach and it needs to be on a playing surface,’’ said the player. “The ISL athletic directors got together and decided the gym was a playing surface.’’

Athletic director Kathy Noble told students, according to one present, that she informed Taylor that the weightlifting, which was done voluntarily with no set times, could have been construed as breaking the rules.

When reached by phone, Taylor denied any wrongdoing.

“When was this alleged athletic director meeting?’’ he asked. “And if the rule is true, then why wasn’t it put in the Lawrence Academy coaches’ handbook to update the rules?’’

Another player who asked not to be identified was frustrated by being judged without being spoken to.

“Mr. Wiggins said that he answered all the questions the ISL had for him,’’ the player said. “He answered questions about what we did in the summer, but it’s all second- and third-hand. No one asked the players or the coach.’’

According to a pair of letters sent from parents of Lawrence Academy athletes to the Board of Trustees Feb. 8 and March 10, there were numerous requests to meet with the board and discuss an immediate replacement of Wiggins as headmaster, noting that Taylor was forced to resign by Wiggins.

The February letter also referenced Noble refusing to allow captains practices on campus in early August, something that all ISL schools allow, according to the letter, and eventually denying the football team permission to use the weight room that Taylor paid for upon request.

Noble withheld comment yesterday. Wiggins refused to be interviewed.

Lawrence Academy has been at odds with the rest of the ISL since becoming a powerhouse two years ago under Taylor, who financed many of the team’s needs and was one of the largest contributors to the school.

One incident in particular — a last-minute forfeit by St. George’s, which cited safety concerns at being physically outmatched — drew national attention.

One of the sanctions changed the forfeit to a no-contest.

St. George’s headmaster Eric Peterson released the following statement, the only public response by an ISL member regarding the sanctions outside of the league’s original statement:

“We are satisfied with and supportive of the ISL response with respect to Lawrence Academy. While the safety and well-being of our players was always our paramount concern, these sanctions address a set of underlying issues about which we could not comment last fall.’’

Yesterday’s sit-down protest turned into an informal question-and-answer session, with students discussing their concerns with faculty and administration. After everyone had their say, the students returned to their normal schedule.

“The meeting was pretty productive,’’ said David Casanave, Lawrence Academy’s director of communications and marketing. “The idea was to . . . be clear about how we are conducting ourselves now from an athletic standpoint.’’

Though little information was given by the tight-lipped administration, the team felt satisfied knowing it had the support of its peers.

“It was kind of an accomplishment in the sense that the whole school was behind us and not just the football team,’’ said a player.