Two New Jersey Catholic school students were expelled after their family sued the school for not allowing their 13-year-old daughter play on the boys’ basketball team.
Scott Phillips found out in October that his daughters’ school, St. Teresa’s in Kenilworth, New Jersey, was shutting down the girls’ basketball team.
“When we heard that there was no varsity team, which covers 7th and 8th grade, my wife simply said, ‘Let’s just let her play with the 7th and 8th grade boys. Let’s move her over,’ ” Phillips tells PEOPLE.
But when he approached the school’s athletic director, the idea was met with resistance.
“Instead of saying, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ or ‘Let’s look into it,’ it was a resounding ‘No’ from the athletic director,” says Phillips, 63, a retired police officer. “It was a simple request: just move a girl over to the boys’ league. It’s a no tryout league. There was nothing about if she can keep up with the boys. And as it happens, Sydney [my older daughter] is a very, very good athlete, and her moving to the boys’ team would only help them.”
Scott asked if the school had a rule in writing stating that girls were not allowed to play on boys’ teams, which he says they couldn’t produce.
“They said that boys only play with boys, and girls only play with girls,” he says.
Scott and his wife Theresa then went up the chain of command, and set up a meeting with the Newark Archdiocese, who runs the school. They were immediately told that Sydney wouldn’t be allowed to play with the boys, prompting the Phillips to take legal action. (The Newark Archdiocese has not responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
“We just want Sydney to be able to play basketball at St. Teresa’s,” Scott says. “She plays for a very good travel team and another church for our hometown. It’s not just that she wanted to play basketball — she wanted to play it for her school. She’s gone to that school since pre-K, so it’s the only school she’s ever known.”
“Sydney can’t understand what the big deal is,” he continues. “She’s not taking anybody’s spot, she’s not competing with anybody. The only people who are going to get hurt are some boys’ egos.”
“It was the experience of a lifetime for Sydney,” Scott says. “She was absolutely thrilled. She met Brittany Boyd, Sugar Rodgers and Teresa Weatherspoon, and they put her through a nice half-hour practice of drills and shooting and running around, and they gave Sydney an honorary uniform with her name on it. It was just grand.”
After meeting with Sydney, Weatherspoon is speaking out in support of Sydney’s desire to play on her school’s boys’ team.
“This was a no-brainer — it’s a young girl who wants to play the game of basketball, and all she wants to do is play,” Weatherspoon tells PEOPLE. “The way we learned the game is playing with the guys. You just wanted to play against other athletes, and get better at a sport. And to be honest with you, Sydney Phillips can play the game. She is a talent. She wasn’t intimidated at all to be out on the floor with us. She was excited, she was motivated, and having so much fun.”
However, what should have been a happy occasion was marred by some devastating news — right before the practice, Scott learned that Sydney and her 11-year-old sister, Katie, were expelled from St. Teresa’s over the lawsuit. The next day when the family went to school, they encountered two police officers and two priests blocking the entrance.
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“[The school] called the Archdiocese, and they said their decision was that they were expelling my daughters at that exact instant,” says Scott. “They told [my daughters] that if they didn’t leave the school, they were trespassers and could be arrested. My 11-year -old was hysterically crying.”
On Friday morning, Scott filed a motion for an emergency hearing, and the appellate court agreed, with the judge ruling that the girls will be allowed back in school on Monday.
“This isn’t about the money,” he says. “We just want Sydney to be able to play basketball.”