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Wrestler competes despite charges

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A star wrestler at Rio Grande High, who had been scratched from this weekend’s state tournament after being suspended and charged with battery and larceny of a fellow student, was allowed to wrestle after his family went to court on his behalf.

School district officials said Friday they were disappointed by the court’s decision because they didn’t want Nicholas Chavez, an 18-year-old senior, to get special treatment.

Some in the South Valley, however, said they were happy Chavez, undefeated this season, would be able to wrestle. And several calls were made on his behalf.

Among them, Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz contacted APS board member Analee Maestas, who then called APS Superintendent Winston Brooks.

Brooks also received a call from state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, about APS’ handling of the incident.

Chavez was suspended for three days after he allegedly took $15 from another student and slapped him across the face.

The incident Thursday in the school cafeteria was witnessed by the Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy assigned to Rio Grande, according to a police report.

According to the report, the deputy saw Chavez hit the smaller student’s lunch tray out of his hands, but did not intervene.

The two teens, both wrestlers, sat down, and the deputy heard the smaller student asking for his money back. At that point, Chavez slapped him across the face, the report said.

“The entire lunch crowd, including the remaining wrestling team, exclaimed ‘Oh,'” according to the complaint.

Chavez, a returning state champion who wrestles at 195 pounds for the Ravens of Class 5A, won both his matches Friday at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho. He will be in the semifinals this morning.

Chavez denied there was anything malicious about the incident.

“We were roughhousing, and it went too far,” Chavez told the Journal in an interview between his two matches Friday. “We were just messing around.”

According to the police report, the victim said Chavez asked him for his wallet while they were in the lunch line. The teen handed it to Chavez, who took $15 out of it, the complaint said.

The victim said he continued to ask for his money back, until Chavez ultimately slapped him. The victim did say, however, that he was not injured and just wanted the whole thing to be forgotten, according to the report.

The family’s request for a temporary restraining order was granted Friday morning by District Court Judge Clay Campbell. The request downplayed the cafeteria incident and said the teens were “engaging in horseplay” when Chavez was arrested.

The New Mexico Activities Association had already put together a bracket in the 195-pound division without Chavez. The NMAA received word about 10 a.m. Friday — just prior to the first round of the tournament — that Chavez would wrestle.

“The courts basically ordered us to put him into the tournament,” said NMAA spokesman Dusty Young. Chavez, who had been scratched from the event on Thursday night by Rio Grande coaches after learning of his suspension, was awarded the No. 1 seed.

The family, in its legal complaint, alleged APS violated Chavez’s right to due process. The request also said the suspension could cause “irreparable harm” to Chavez, who is currently being recruited by colleges that will consider his tournament performance when deciding whether to offer him scholarships.

The family asked the judge for an emergency restraining order that would block the suspension and allow Chavez to wrestle.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Chavez said about being suspended. “I wanted to fight it, but it took the whole community.”

Brooks referred comment to Chief Operations Officer Brad Winter, who said the district was “very disappointed” in Campbell’s ruling.

“We treat all students exactly the same. There was a victim here, the kid violated the student handbook, and we felt, like any other student, he should be suspended for that,” Winter said.

De La Cruz said he called Maestas, who represents the South Valley on the school board, to advocate for Chavez after hearing about the news during practice on Thursday. De La Cruz sometimes volunteers as a coach at Rio Grande.

“I was concerned because I didn’t know how (the district) could make an opinion that fast, and didn’t understand why it couldn’t wait at all. I felt he wasn’t getting due process,” said De La Cruz, He said he was pleased Chavez got to wrestle.

Maestas said she learned most of the facts of the case from De La Cruz, and had heard the cafeteria incident was “horseplay” and “not serious.”

“I do know that we can easily destroy the spirit of students by overreacting so quickly,” Maestas said. “When they’re so passionate about sports and what they do, not to allow a student to play really can break a student’s spirit, and we lose them.”

Maestas, who contacted Brooks and other administrators about the issue, said she wanted the incident to be investigated more thoroughly, although she did not specify what still needed to be investigated.

Sen. Padilla said Friday he called Brooks after hearing about the incident. Padilla said he asked Brooks to make sure a thorough and fair investigation was done.

“My call was around ensuring that everybody, including the alleged victim, were treated fairly, and that a complete and thorough investigation was done,” Padilla said.

APS procedure does not entitle students to a hearing when they have been short-term suspended, only when they face long-term suspension. Students can file a grievance when they are short-term suspended, which the Chavez family had not done.

Rio Grande wrestling coach Loren Vigil declined to comment.

Glenn Smith Valdez, an attorney for the Chavez family, said in an email that the family is concerned Chavez may have actually received harsher punishment because of his status as a star athlete.

“We sought an injunction based on our belief that Nick was being treated unfairly because of his status as an outstanding student athlete. This roughhousing between friends was a mistake, but was not a schoolyard fist-fight warranting suspension,” Valdez said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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