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Rash to judgment? Wrestlers' parents irate over mistaken herpes warning

GUSTINE -- Wrestlers at Gustine High can't walk through the halls without hearing the word "herpes."

For almost a week, they've felt ostracized at their own school.

"A leper is a good word for it," junior wrestler Jake Williams said. "That's exactly how it feels."

Williams and his

12 teammates say they have faced ridicule and humiliation after school administrators -- acting without principal Dennis Shaw on campus -- announced last week to teachers and students there was an outbreak of herpes on campus.

"We can't walk down the hallway without someone yelling 'herpes,' " said senior wrestler Zane Atkins. "Kids, teachers who usually shake our hand, they don't want anything to do with us."

As it turned out, the administrators jumped the gun -- and were incorrect.

None of the wrestlers had contracted herpes gladiatorum.

The flap began last Thursday when school officials met with three students regarding skin rashes.

"These students were seen by medical professionals, cleared to attend school, and to resume normal activities," the school announced via press release on Wednesday.

"One of these students received treatment for possible herpes gladiatorum."

One wrestler said he came back from a medical clinic in Livermore and told Gustine assistant principal John Bussard the rash was either herpes gladiatorum or staphylococcus aureus -- a common type of staph infection found in the sport of wrestling.

The two other wrestlers went to a local medical clinic in Gustine for tests.

When all the results came back on Monday, they revealed the students had staphylococcus aureus.

However, before the official diagnosis came out this week, school administrators already had gone into panic mode.

An announcement was made over the school intercom informing students and teachers of a herpes outbreak.

"It said to look yourself over for rashes, wash yourself down," Williams said. "If you do see a rash, go see a doctor."

A recorded message was sent by phone to the students' parents informing them of the outbreak at school.

"That message did not single out or identify any individual or group of students who may have contacted or been exposed to the skin condition," the school's press release stated.

"The District apologizes to the community for the confusion and concern among parents regarding health and safety conditions at the high school."

Some wrestlers, however, claim that the school's press release was incorrect and that they were singled out in classrooms.

One wrestler said he was told by a physical education teacher to sit in the corner with his coat on.

"If that happened, we'll certainly take action," said Gustine Unified School District superintendent Gail McWilliams. "I would assume the high school would look into this. They're there.

"If anybody has a grievance, they should bring it up with (the high school)."

How did word get out it was the wrestling team?

The school denies revealing the wrestlers were the students in question.

However, one school employee who asked to remain anonymous claimed to have seen the written Spanish version of the "tele-parent" message.

The employee said the wrestling team was mentioned in that message.

Bussard denied the wrestling team was mentioned in either tele-parent message.

But why did the school assume the wrestlers had this form of herpes and not wait until the results came back from the clinic?

Bussard refused to comment and said he had been instructed to refer all questions to the district office.

"It was the best knowledge we had at the time," McWilliams, the superintendent, said. "As for any additional info, I wasn't there, so I don't know if I'm the best person to talk to."

The school's actions left the wrestlers' parents irate.

"Who made (Bussard) a doctor? Why is he making the diagnosis -- and then to go out in public and announce what it is?" said Alma Cruz, who has a son on the wrestling team.

"It's not just the high school, the whole town knows. Apologize for letting it get out of hand. Step up and admit the mistake they made."

"It's demoralizing," said Jacqueline Fernandez, who also has a son on the team. "Unethical. Words you don't want to feel in high school.

"If they made a mistake, they should fix it."

This is the second embarrassing event in two years for the Gustine athletic program.

Two years ago, a hazing incident at a football camp resulted in the dismissal of head coach Carl Scudder.

"It's ridiculous what happened to these kids," Cruz said. "I think (school administrators) jumped to conclusions too quick.

"They didn't think. They said it was this when it really wasn't that. They had no evidence."

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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