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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 have faced ridicule and humiliation after school administrators announced last week to teachers and students that there was an outbreak of herpes on campus.

When word quickly spread that the outbreak involved the wrestling team, they might as well have worn a huge “H” painted on their chests.

“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 school’s viral marketing was wrong.

None of the wrestlers had what the school believed to be herpes gladiatorum. That’s a viral skin infection that can include a rash or blisters on the upper body.

The school met with three students about skin rashes last Thursday.

“These students were seen by medical professionals, cleared to attend school, and to resume normal activities,” the school said in a press release 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 the results came back on Monday, it revealed the students had staphylococcus aureus.

However, before the official diagnosis came out this week, the school had already been in panic mode since Thursday.

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 insisted.

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

Meanwhile, the wrestlers claim they were singled out in classrooms.

One wrestler said he was told by a P.E. teacher to sit in the corner with his coat on. The teacher didn’t want him around the other students.

“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 them.”

How did word leak that it was the wrestling team?

The school denies identifying the wrestling team as the students in question.

However, one school employee, who asked not to be identified, claimed to have seen the written Spanish-language version of the tele-parent message. The employee said the wrestling team was mentioned in that message.

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

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

Bussard had no 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 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 wrestling parents irate.

“Who made (Bussard) doctor? Why is he making the diagnosis? And then to go out in public and announce what it is,” demanded 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 event at a football camp led to the firing of head coach Carl Scudder.

“ It’s ridiculous what happened to these kids,” Cruz fumed. “I think they jumped to conclusions too quick.

“They didn’t think. They said it was this when it really wasn’t that. They had no evidence.”

These parents are going to the mat for their sons.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 209 385-2462 or via e-mail at sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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