Detroit News, February 5, 2001
Player says coach hit, bruised him
Police examine January paddling of Detroit Murray-Wright football players
By Fred Girard
Omi Judkins, a 15-year-old freshman, has not returned to school since a Jan. 22 incident in which he says he received 10 blows with the paddle, and six or seven teammates were hit as well -- one hit 12 or 13 times. Blankenship struck him so hard, Judkins said Friday, the paddle cracked.
Blankenship said Murray-Wright Principal Sallie Polk had forbidden him to discuss the incident, and family members have agreed he should not. "I told (family members) I've apologized for this from day one, but they think it's best if I don't say anything now. Omi is just a beautiful kid -- you have no idea how painful this is to me."
In three conversations with The Detroit News, he did not refute any of Judkins' statements about the Jan. 22 incident.
Blankenship said Polk had disciplined him, but declined to describe the penalties. The News first reached him Friday afternoon at the school, where he was on duty teaching his history class.
Polk was not in the building Friday, and did not respond to a message left on her home answering machine. Assistant Principal Louis Branson confirmed that the incident had occurred, but said he could not discuss it further.
Judkins' mother, LaTanya Pruett, said Friday she took her son to Children's Hospital of Michigan two days after the incident. There, an emergency room doctor noted "11-inch long transverse dark bruise (by) 7 inches wide on both buttocks" among other marks, according to documents obtained by The News. The doctor instructed Pruett to report the incident to police and social workers.
Sgt. Gawaine Hughes of the Detroit Police Department child abuse section said Friday that the complaint had been made and a case file opened, and an investigator would be assigned as early as today.
"We'll bring the kid in and get his statement, then bring in the football coach," Hughes said. "If (Blankenship) is smart, and he follows (school board) protocol, he'll come in with a lawyer."
The Jan. 22 incident was the second time he had been paddled, Judkins said. He was struck twice by Blankenship on another occasion after a teacher reported to the football coach that Judkins had been involved in a verbal confrontation with a classmate.
On at least a half-dozen occasions, he said, he has seen teammates struck with the paddle for various infractions such as talking back to teachers or receiving poor progress reports.
It is such a common occurrence, Judkins said, that players have a nickname for it -- "getting the wood" -- but it is never discussed with outsiders. "People have got hurt, bruised and swollen," he said. "But, following behind the 'in crowd,' some people call it, (they) don't want to be the oddball out of the crowd" and complain about it.
Judkins said the incident began when a secretary announced over the school's public address system that all members of the varsity and junior varsity were to report to Blankenship with their just-issued report cards. In the school's science room, Judkins said, Blankenship gave a brief lecture on the importance of earning good grades, not just to play football but to be a success in life.
Blankenship began going through the report cards, separating them into two stacks, Judkins said -- and then came the paddling.
"If you got a D, basically, you were getting the wood," Judkins said. "If you got all C's and up you were OK. Every D counts for three (whacks with the paddle), and every F counts for five. We were over a long desk, palms down, facing forward, and he just proceeded to hit us. I had two F's and a D, so I was supposed to get 13 hits, but he stopped at number 10. I was like the eighth person to get hit. One person got a couple hits more than me."
Judkins said that as Blankenship was striking him, he kept saying "that he wasn't doing it out of malice, he was trying to make me a man so I could survive out in the world."
Judkins, a 6-foot-3, 308-pound center who started every game in the junior varsity's 7-1 season, said he refused to cry while being hit.
"Some people did cry," he said. "I can endure a lot of pain, so it didn't really bother me that much when he was doing it. It was the aftermath of what he did that bothered me emotionally, mentally and physically. I went in the bathroom and pulled my pants down and looked in the mirror -- I didn't think he was going to do something like that, that bad. He's a good person. I had put all my trust in him -- I just never believed he'd do something like that.
"I really looked up to him. He played for Michigan, so I had my eye set on being like him. I always wanted to play for a major school, go to Michigan. Now, I might not play football at all."
Pruett said she knew her son was hurting the minute she saw him after school that day.
"He was cringing, his face was frowning," she said. "At first he didn't want to tell me what was wrong -- he said, 'Aw, I just got some wood.' I insisted that he pull his pants down and let me see, and I just started crying, I could not believe it. It was black, and red, and swollen, he had these big dents in his behind."
At a meeting at Murray-Wright the next day, Pruett said, Polk looked at the bruises, "and she started to cry, She said she couldn't believe that somebody would do something like that."
Polk then brought Blankenship into the meeting, Pruett said, and made him look at the bruises.
"He was shocked," Pruett said. "I asked him, 'Did you do this?' He said 'Yeah, I did that.' He went to explain his reasoning -- that he didn't know it was that bad, and when you're dealing with boys you have to do different, and that this is the way he was raised. His father's a minister and he was raised getting whupped, and he was on football teams all his life and that's what the coaches did to them. So, since he was raised that way and that happened to him, that was the proper way to do things.
"But he said he never imagined that it was that bad. Because I guess nobody had ever said anything or showed him the damage he was doing to them. Nobody ever said anything about this. Parents need to know."
Judkins said he told his coach during the emotional meeting "that I know it wasn't out of malice, but that he did actually hurt me. Probably not knowing it, but he did, physically, mentally and emotionally. Emotionally, I was about in tears when I was talking to him -- I actually did not want to see him in trouble, but after something like that, I think you should be punished."
Judkins said he has not returned to school because, "I just don't trust anyone in the school system right now. I might get into a confrontation with somebody."
Pruett said Murray-Wright officials have not given her assurances that her son would be protected from retribution, and have not offered to help with transportation to send him to another school. Pruett, who lives on Detroit's east side with her son, enrolled him at Murray-Wright because it had a better academic reputation than his own neighborhood high school, she said.
The News was able to reach one other player who Judkins said was hit during the Jan. 22 incident, but he and his mother declined to be interviewed.
Sarah Suter, 17, a senior who played nose guard for Murray-Wright's varsity the past two years, the only woman on the squad, said Blankenship "watches out for me -- I don't ever get yelled at. I think some of the kids who complain are the ones who skip school, or talk back to people, things like that."
She has never seen or heard of anyone being paddled, she said. "Coach Blankenship is very strict, he will chastise players, get up in their face. But I've heard parents say he handles the team really well, and they don't mind about the way he chastises them."
When Murray-Wright student Cassandra Emerson was receiving academic honors in 1997, she said in a newspaper interview that Blankenship was one of her two favorite teachers because "he takes interest in his students. I think every teacher should be dedicated."
Blankenship played football at Murray-Wright before receiving a scholarship to the University of Michigan in 1989 as a highly regarded defensive back. After graduating he returned to his alma mater and became head football coach seven years ago.
You can reach Fred Girard at (313) 222-2165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.