The Oak Park High School football team is beginning the 2000 season without its head coach, who was suspended for four games in the wake of a team drinking incident, school officials said Friday.
School officials would not specify why Coach Dick Billingsley was suspended, but Principal Cliff Moore said, "We're dealing with an issue related to a summer incident involving a coach and students."
The decision was met with mixed reaction by football players and their parents. Team members vowed to support Billingsley with a letter-writing campaign, while some parents backed the suspension.
The action is fallout from a July 7 football tournament in Santa Ynez. That evening, 18 members of the team drank alcohol on the grounds of an elementary school and at private homes, where they were being housed.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department was called about a disturbance at the school and found the students at a host family's home nearby, where the players submitted to breath tests and deputies called the coach, officials said.
Later that month, school officials suspended 18 football players from two upcoming games as a result of the drinking incident.
The players' suspensions will be staggered over several games, officials said, with only nine players out of any one game. They also attended alcohol intervention classes, were barred from a summer football program and are required to complete 30 hours of community service. They will also be on school probation for a year.
While Billingsley's suspension has irked some team members, one parent applauded the decision.
Albert Melshenker, the father of two boys on the team, was among parents who asked school officials to consider "all the facts" when handing out consequences.
"I'm not out to seek revenge on the coach," Melshenker said. "I just think it's totally ridiculous to lay all the responsibility of the incident on the boys and not on the adults in charge of them, and I think the officials at Oak Park agree."
Melshenker and one of the team members said Billingsley, who has coached the team for 11 years, was not present when the boys were drinking.
The incident has unsettled many involved with the school's athletic community, Moore said. He gave the coach a vote of confidence in spite of the suspension, saying Billingsley is still the school's coach for the season.
"It's shaken the cages of a lot of parents," Moore said Friday. "If we don't learn something from this, I hope it doesn't take someone being killed in an accident."
Anger over the incident has also led school board trustees to plan a review of the district's "zero tolerance" policy regarding underage drinking at its Sept. 19 meeting. Bob Fraser, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the district's policy meets the state's education code guidelines but a review might lead to some fine-tuning.
The trustees will examine which offenses will result in suspension and which in expulsion, but Fraser did not know whether they will discuss whether supervising adults should be liable for students' behavior.
Mike Melshenker, 17, a team member who was not on the trip to Santa Ynez, said he is disappointed that Billingsley was suspended. The team made "dumb choices," he said, and let their coach down and not vice versa.
But his father, Albert, said the punishments have already made a difference by making the boys concentrate more on football and school. And, he said, the alcohol intervention classes have had a powerful effect on the players.
"That experience alone was worth the trouble this incident caused," he said.
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.