The High Price of Victory

by Leslie Turk

LHS officials blew an opportunity to teach student-athletes a lesson about the importance of making good decisions on and off the court. Although LHS officials claim they were in the dark about the circumstances surrounding 18-year-old basketball star Josh Wiltz’s Feb. 24 arrest on drug and weapons charges, their decision-making in the wake of the arrest came on the eve of an opportunity for a history-making state championship. Just how hard did those officials work to find more information about his arrest for illegal possession of a hand gun and possession of marijuana before allowing him on the court in two subsequent playoff games — and would any of this have come to light had it not been for a local TV station’s story? LHS’ belated suspension of Wiltz has been blasted by many parents and sports fans — among them one of the harshest critics of the delay, Lafayette Parish Superintendent Burnell Lemoine.

The LHS Mighty Lions overcame the controversy and adversity of eventually losing one of their standout starters — Wiltz was suspended from the team on Tuesday, March 4 — to trample H.L. Bourgeois 78-58 for the Division 5A state championship Saturday night in the Cajundome. For too many people, however, the suspension came too late; according to school district policy, Wiltz should have been immediately suspended from the team.

LHS Principal Patrick Leonard says he found out about the arrest on Tuesday, Feb. 26, and maintains that he tried to obtain more information but got no cooperation from the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department. “There was an effort to get the arrest report,” Leonard says, explaining that his school resource officer called the sheriff’s department, “and we were unable to obtain it.”

That Tuesday night, however, the senior standout played in a home game against Brother Martin, and two nights later, on Thursday, Feb. 28, KATC-TV3 blew the whistle on his arrest (the station made an editorial decision not to identify Wiltz), reporting that players’ parents were upset that there had been no consequences because he had started Tuesday’s game.

When confronted by the station’s reporter with the district policy that stated students “will be suspended from interscholastic competition” if they are arrested on these types of charges, Lafayette Parish Athletic Director James Simmons played a non-sensical semantics game with the station, saying the policy said “will” and not “shall,” so the decision rested with the coach.

Head coach Clifton Brown wouldn’t comment to the station on whether Wiltz would start in the next day’s playoff game against Destrehan, but Wiltz was again in the starting lineup, even scoring the winning basket.

Leonard initially told local media that Wiltz was being disciplined, a decision he’d left in the hands of coach Brown. It was Wiltz who notified his coach, and it’s unclear what part of that conversation convinced Brown that Wiltz should stay on the team. No specifics of the disciplinary action were disclosed.

Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Craig Stansbury does not understand why it took so long for school officials to get the information they needed, saying the initial arrest report and affidavit were available Monday morning and released to local media outlets that requested them. The initial incident report, which contains information like the location of the arrest and who was arrested, along with an affidavit that includes probable cause and a synopsis of the incident, are both a matter of public record, says Stansbury. The affidavit is turned in with the booking sheet; Wiltz was booked into the parish jail and released after posting a $500 bond. The affidavit would not be public record if it contained sensitive information that could jeopardize the case, like witness names or the names of juveniles, the spokesman says. “As soon as the initial report is turned in, it is available,” Stansbury says. “My question to [Leonard] is who did they ask? I’m available 24-7. He didn’t ask me.”

More than a week after the incident, on Monday, March 3, Leonard says he did receive more information on the arrest of Wiltz but declined to say who supplied the new details. Wiltz was charged with illegal use of a weapon, possession of marijuana, illegal use of a controlled drug and illegal carrying of a weapon. The principal initially decided to suspend Wiltz from the team through Thursday, meaning he would have missed the first Top 28 playoff game but would have been back in the action for Saturday’s final. However, Leonard says when additional details surfaced Tuesday from Superintendent Lemoine, he suspended Wiltz for the remainder of the season. (The LHS principal would not say when his resource officer first contacted the sheriff’s department.)

Whatever the eventual outcome of Wiltz’s guilt or innocence in the incident, the basketball player appears to have used questionable judgment on the night of Feb. 23 and into the early morning hours of Feb. 24. According to the affidavit, at about 1 a.m. the sheriff’s department identified three suspicious vehicles in Pa Davis Park, an area known for drug trafficking, one of which was driven by Wiltz. The vehicles were stopped, and the drivers gave the sheriff’s deputies permission to search the vehicle, where a loaded handgun was found. A small bag of marijuana was found in the right front pocket of Wiltz’s jeans, and a marijuana blunt was located in the back seat. Three unidentified minors were in the car with Wiltz.

What does appear clear is that had it not been for the action of Superintendent Lemoine, who was out of town on school business for much of the week following the arrest and read about the controversy the Saturday morning after Wiltz scored the winning basket against Destrehan, Wiltz would have remained on the team. After the Destrehan victory, both Brown and Leonard told local media that while the decision was difficult, they felt the right decision had been made.

That’s not the way the school system’s top official saw it from the outset, and Lemoine’s misgivings about how the situation was handled were confirmed Monday, March 3, when he pulled the policy and reviewed it. “I felt it was clear cut,” he says, explaining that he immediately called the parish athletic director and Leonard and told them Wiltz’s season was over. Lemoine disputes Leonard’s statement that Monday’s decision was to suspend the player only through Thursday. “Maybe that was their interpretation, but it was not mine. The season was finished,” the superintendent says.

Later that day, a TV3 reporter showed Lemoine the initial arrest report and affidavit, cementing his decision that the policy had been violated.

This week, Lemoine plans to call a meeting of all parish principals to discuss the matter and devise a plan or policy for how these types of incidents will be dealt with in the future, including how to immediately ascertain records from law enforcement officials. “I’m very concerned; I want students to be treated the same,” Lemoine says.

The superintendent says he has no idea what Wiltz told his coach about the arrest or why school officials allowed him to continue playing. “I’m not sure what their interpretation [of the policy] was,” Lemoine says. “I’ll have to deal with that in my own way.”

According to the school district’s policy, student athletes are to be suspended from competition if they are caught — in or out of school — using or possessing drugs, alcohol or tobacco; fighting, stealing, lying, having false identification, forging, cheating, vandalizing or have trouble with the police. “Any student athlete who commits any of these violations will be suspended immediately and may be suspended up to one calendar year pending staff review,” the policy states.

Leonard’s comments in a Daily Advertiser story the Saturday after LHS’ win over Destrehan had the principal in a defensive posture, saying discipline is intended to change behavior, “not ruin lives.”

Surprisingly, the principal was still defending the decision last week, saying the policy further stipulates that all disciplinary action should be “reasonable and based upon the specific circumstances and facts” as determined by the school’s administration. “I didn’t have any circumstances or facts to review,” he says. “It took that long to get the facts.”

In the end, Leonard and Brown seem to be missing the point: that the policy is intended to teach student-athletes a lesson about the choices they make.