Parents of ousted Salmen basketball players meet with school officials for 2 1/2 hours; waiting to hear if girls will be reinstated _lowres

Photo provided by David Folse -- Less than 24 hours after they refused to play in a game because they claimed concerns about their new coach were not being properly addressed, seven girls basketball players at Salmen High School in Slidell were kicked off the team Wednesday.

Three mothers whose daughters were kicked off the Salmen High School basketball team last month asked the St. Tammany Parish School Board on Thursday to reinstate all seven players who were removed for boycotting a game.

Patricia Webb said her 17-year-old daughter, Darnelle, was devastated after being ousted from the team.

“What basketball meant to Darnelle, it wasn’t just a game,” Webb said. “Basketball was her go-to place. She’s been through so much that others don’t know. I know as her mom. It was her incentive to keep her grades up. Basketball — that’s what she wants, that’s who she is.”

The parents told board members that concerns they and their daughters had raised about coach Panos Bounovinas — including his presence in the girls’ locker room — were ignored by the school administration, prompting the boycott.

The day after the girls missed the game, Bounovinas suspended all seven from the team.

Salmen Principal Brennan McCurley said Monday that he is upholding the coach’s decision.

All seven ousted players attended the meeting Thursday, standing as a group as their mothers and civil rights organizer Belinda Parker Brown addressed the board. Webb said her daughter feels that she is being punished for speaking out and asked the board to reinstate them.

She and Brown asked the board to go into closed session to discuss the matter. But School Board President Jack Loup told them that was not possible because the matter was not on the agenda.

The mothers who spoke made emotional appeals to the board. Danyelle Neal said her daughter, Antoinette, had been excited all summer about making the team and now feels crestfallen.

“She walks around with her head down,” Neal said. “She doesn’t understand why she was kicked off the team, and I can’t give her an answer.”

Regina McKain said she has had to seek counseling for her daughter, Jazmine.

“She lives, eats and sleeps basketball. I am a basketball mom; when my child hurts, I’m hurt,” McKain said, adding that no one wanted to listen to Jazmine or her teammates.

“The girls were just trying to stand their ground,” she said. “All the girls wanted to do was talk to the adults, the educators who didn’t want to talk to the girls.”

In a letter to Superintendent Trey Folse, one of the mothers complained that teachers have been questioning the girls about what happened, defending the coach and saying things that the former players find “intimidating.”

The Salmen players also have drawn the attention of a women’s advocacy group, UltraViolet, which launched a petition this week asking that the student-athletes be reinstated and that the school launch an independent investigation into potential abuse on the team.

Spokesman Brett Abrams said the online petition has attracted more than 27,000 signatures and that 650 UltraViolet members had called the superintendent.

But Meredith Mendez, a spokeswoman for the school system, said she has not heard of UltraViolet and was not aware of any calls made by members of that organization.

School Board members did not discuss the Salmen basketball ouster during the meeting, but after it adjourned, members Neal Hennegan and Willie Jeter spoke to the students and their parents in the lobby.

Hennegan said the investigation did not show any impropriety on the part of the coach.

Brown rejected that argument. “You can’t investigate yourself,” she told Hennegan, calling the school system’s probe an example of cronyism. She urged an independent investigation.

Jeter spoke to the families on his way out the door, noting that he had coached both boys and girls basketball. “What’s happened to you, I hate to see that happen,” he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.