An Aragon High School basketball coach accused of cutting two players for racial reasons has been dismissed by the school, but officials deny it has anything to do with the incident.

"If we thought one percent that it was due to racism, he would have been gone that day," said Steve Sells, Aragon High School director of athletics. "We wouldn't wait until the end of the season."

Rick Hanson, a teacher at Ralston Intermediate School, was Aragon's varsity basketball coach for three years. This season, the team ended the season March 16 with a 2-10 record, according to Sells. Hanson, 34, was notified of the decision early last week, Sells said.

"He did his job for three years. There is always an assumption in public education that you have to do something wrong to be dismissed," he said. "But we just wanted to go in a different direction."

Hanson said he was "absolutely" interested in telling his side of the story but wanted to speak with his attorney first.

The allegations of racism began last fall when Aragon Senior Mike Vernali did not make the 12-member team. Because the team has no black players, Vernali believed the cut was racially motivated, according to his aunt Jill Hyatt.

Marie Davis, president of the San Mateo County NAACP alleges that Hanson refused to allow Vernali on the team because he said, "He was no good last year, he's no good this year."

"He didn't look that hard and didn't give him scrutiny," she said. "They felt he didn't want a black kid on the team and the parents did too. If it's perceived, then it becomes real."

Both Davis and Hyatt said both Vernali and his cousin Fred Wilson -- who was also interested in playing -- are talented basketball players who excelled in the Twilight Basketball program in North Central San Mateo.

"I thought they were just wonderful. I didn't understand why the coach didn't put them on the team," she said.

According to Zelte Crawford, a professor at the College of San Mateo who founded the Twilight basketball program, the two had shown improvement in recent years.

"They had improved considerably. Mike could've played on someone's team, he needed a good coach though and he probably wouldn't have started," Crawford said.

Sells said he agreed with Hanson's assessment that the two did not play at the level needed for the varsity high school squad.

"The NAACP raised the issue here with two African-American kids not making the team. But we looked at it long and hard and in detail and racism was not the cause. These kids didn't make it because they weren't good enough," Sells said.

After several meetings with San Mateo Union High School officials and community leaders, Hyatt said both Vernali and Wilson were promised scholarships as a consolation. Davis also said that school officials allowed the two to play in an exhibition game against faculty members in costume, but did not offer them a spot on the squad. After the last meeting in January, Davis said Wilson was offered a position as a videographer for the team.

Hyatt believes that the whole situation smacks of racism.

"This proves that racism is totally acceptable in this day and age and we have to fight it," she said.

Superintendent Tom Mohr was out of the district yesterday and Samuel Johnson, associate superintendent for human resources and administrative services, said he would not comment on the situation because it was a personnel matter. He did say, however, that any coach's dismissal would not have to go through the district board unless the coach was also a full-time teacher or aide and dismissed from that position as well.


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