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By Andrea Peyser
February 10, 2017
When Sydney Phillips, the girl expelled from school because she wants to play basketball, walked defiantly into her New Jersey learning center Monday, some boys in her class were ready.
Sydney is too proud and too athletic for the junior bullies to accept.
Worse, in their eyes, she’d made their school look bad. So six of them, including five players on the school’s boys’ hoops team, sat on the gymnasium floor, glaring, she told me, crossing their arms in an apparent attempt to physically block her entrance into their Catholic school’s morning assembly.
“I think the were trying to intimidate me,’’ the 13-year-old seventh- grader at St. Theresa School in Kenilworth, said. Then, showing maturity well beyond her years, she added, “It really doesn’t bother me.’’
While another youngster might have buckled in the face of such aggression, Sydney simply stepped around the guys and took her rightful place in the gym. She didn’t complain to school brass as the harassment clicked up several notches.
It was just the latest struggle of a child her father calls “one tough girl.’’
But cyberbullying by adults, who should know better, bothered her, but did not break her.
A pal showed Sydney a Facebook page in which some parents of kids enrolled in the pre-K-through-eighth grade school posted mean comments — essentially urging her to leave.
She’s not going anywhere.
About the boys who don’t want to see her on the court, she said, “I’m probably better than all of them.’’
In December, when Sydney was still 12 years old, her dad, retired Kenilworth Police Capt. Scott Phillips, sued the school and the Archdiocese of Newark, which oversees it, demanding that his daughter be allowed to play basketball on the boys’ team. The girls’ team had been disbanded in the fall after too few kids showed interest in joining. He is seeking no monetary damages.
Sydney Phillips and her father, Scott Phillips
A Newark Superior Court judge shot down the suit, ruling that the school’s religious status protects it from bias claims under the state’s discrimination laws.
Her dad appealed the ruling.
Then last week, a letter from an archdiocese lawyer hit the family like a slap in the face: Neither Sydney nor her younger sister should attend St. Theresa “tomorrow morning or any day thereafter.’’
Sydney’s 11-year-old sister, Kaitlyn, who isn’t involved in the basketball battle, cried hysterically. Sydney learned the news while she and her friends were attending a practice session of the New York Liberty professional women’s basketball team, whose members invited her after hearing about the case.
What followed next was so demeaning, it should outrage any parent, not to mention people of all genders and ages who recently marched all over the world to uphold the rights of females.
On Feb. 2, a pastor, associate pastor and deacon, accompanied by two, then four local police officers, stood in front of St. Theresa’s door after the young sisters tried to attend school despite the letter. They were kept out for two days.
Then, an appellate-court judge ordered school officials to allow the girls back in class.
The whole legal mess has yet to be settled.
No one at the archdiocese or the school would comment about pending litigation. Officials at the Kenilworth Police Department failed to get back to me.
The roundball war threatening to rip apart the school is upsetting parents, including Lisa Bergamotto, whose two daughters and a son attend St. Theresa.
“I would be heartbroken if Sydney and Katie were not in the school. We love them so much,’’ she said. ”We love this school.’’
California psychiatrist Jeff Sugar, MD, an expert in bullying who is not involved in the case, attached to the school a scary term coined by an Oregon psychologist — “institutional betrayal.’’
“You expect an institution to stand up for you,’’ he explained. Sydney has “won a battle, but she appears to be losing the war. It will be hard for her to be at that campus.’’
Sydney isn’t backing down. “I hope that the judge rules I could stay in school permanently,’’ she said, “and he or she rules I can play.’’
I’m trying to raise my own daughter to be strong — a warrior. And like Sydney, to never give up when fighting for what’s right.
Message to St. Theresa: Let Sydney flex her wings.