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Just across the street from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave site in Rockville, a silly and sad sort of witch hunt is under way. Students at Richard Montgomery High School (RMHS) are the prey. And rather than put an end to the senseless hunt, administrators who know just how silly and sad the whole thing is—plenty of the county’s principals fit into that category—are keeping their mouths shut.

Montgomery County civil servant Ed Masood is the chief witch hunter. Masood, with three decades in the school system under his belt, now carries the title Director, Division of Aesthetic, Health and Physical Education, a stuffy way of saying he’s in charge of all extracurricular activities. Beginning last school year, county regulations called for each student who participates in at least one after-school activity to pay a fee of between $10 and $40, depending on the financial status of the kid’s family. Letters requesting the fees were mailed to parents over the summer, although parents who forgot to pay did not receive any follow-up notices.

Masood’s brand of bureaucratic butchery found expression when three RMHS football players (whose names will not be used in this story) went out for the basketball team and paid their fees to the hoops coach. Two of the students qualified for the reduced $10 fee; the third paid the full $40. RMHS officials realized at that time that the two-sport players had suited up for football before paying their fees, so they called the county offices and told Masood about the technical foul. Of course, the final gun on the Rockets’ football season had already sounded, but Masood nonetheless started throwing penalty flags. A lot of them.

First, he ordered Wayne Fleeger, RMHS’s principal, to forfeit the entire season for the football team. The school had a powerhouse program in the 1960s—it produced Colts and Redskins linebacker Mike Curtis, among others—but had been suffering through a long drought until this year, when the squad posted a 7-3 record, its best in 17 years. All that was wiped away by the Masood directive, handed down weeks after the final game. Henceforth, the record books will show that the 1997 Rockets suffered through an 0-10 season.

At Masood’s insistence, the Rockets had to throw a season’s worth of effort away because $60 wasn’t paid on time. Montgomery County is the richest district in a state that flaunts a 1997 budget surplus of more than $1 billion, so in the grand scheme a few months’ interest on $60 isn’t much. Never before had a violation of the fee rule resulted in forfeiture, but Masood adamantly denies that the RMHS penalty was heavy-handed.

“We have an established protocol for kids who are ineligible, and forfeiture is the absolute minimum,” Masood says. “Rules are rules.”

Fleeger chimes in: “If you make a mistake, you have to pay a price. We made a mistake, but we didn’t decide on the price. Mr. Masood did.”

And it quickly became apparent that Masood was just getting started by requiring the forfeits. He also ordered Fleeger to sanction the football coach (“If the principal doesn’t sanction him, I will,” Masood boasts), then stripped the RMHS players of the football letters they’d earned on the field.

Masood’s grandstanding actions, and principal Fleeger’s complicity, got a lot of play in the Rockville community media. Soon enough, the names of the young late payers became the talk of the town. The fact that two of the players only owed $10 because they were in the county’s lowest income bracket also found its way into the local papers. Suffice it to say that Montgomery County is not a great place to be identified as needy.

“It doesn’t bother me so much that you know me and my son are poor and the principal knows we’re poor,” one of the mothers told the basketball coach after her son’s name and financial status appeared in print. “But I don’t think everybody needs to know we’re poor.”

Masood takes no responsibility for the disclosure of the students’ names nor for the harm it caused.

“That information got out,” says Masood. “But it didn’t come from this office.”

Masood has been especially hard on the one senior in the trio of late payers, who also happens to be among the most talented athletes in the area. He was named to several all-star teams at quarterback, and discussions of a free ride to the University of Maryland were at the handshake stage when Masood came after him. Masood apparently decided he didn’t like such swell accolades going to an activities-fee scofflaw, so he told Fleeger not to let the young superstar show up for photo shoots of football all-star teams.

Fleeger knows that RMHS’s star quarterback was the main reason the football team had its banner season. And he knows that proceeds from the football program subsidize other activities at RMHS. And he knows that the player’s stellar performance put people in the stands and sold more than enough tickets to make up for the $10 fee that wasn’t paid on time. But just as any good soldier and any awful educator would, Fleeger carried out Masood’s heartless request: When the Montgomery Journal held a photo shoot for its all-county squad, the Rockets’ QB wasn’t in attendance.

“He was ineligible to play football, and so he gained those honors illegally,” Masood says of his campaign to keep the star QB out of the Journal’s photo. “That is not fair to the kids who did what they were supposed to do.”

The senior QB is also the unquestioned star of RMHS’s basketball team. Masood, not content with the damage he had done to the kid already, ordered basketball coach Lee Maust to suspend the youngster from that team. That request horrified the parents of the sanctioned youths.

“Yes, the fee should have been paid [on time],” says one mother. “But it is really my fault that my son’s fee wasn’t paid. The letter from the school asking for the fee was addressed to me, the parent, and not my son. [Masood] knows that! So why is this person allowed to punish the kids, to put them through such ridicule and such a bashing over what is really a small matter. Again—these are kids!”

Masood’s basketball suspension order also outraged Rockville attorney Steve Van Grack. In hopes of mitigating what he regarded as Masood’s tyranny, Van Grack demanded a hearing with county officials to appeal all the penalties that had been doled out.

Van Grack got the hearing, but last week Masood upheld his own forfeit ruling. The basketball suspensions haven’t been enforced yet, however, though Masood still insists that they eventually will be. Van Grack says he’s spending a lot of time on the RMHS case, but it’s not a moneymaker. Unlike the county, he’s not making the kids pay a fee.

“I asked that each of the kids study one extra hour per day. That’s it,” Van Grack says. “I got involved because I felt—and a lot of other people in this county felt—that this is just not the way an educational system should operate. This just isn’t right, period.”

This week, Van Grack will bring up fees and forfeitures again at a meeting of the Montgomery County Public Schools Athletic Association, a body that has the power to rein in Masood. Van Grack will ask the board to do away with the fees entirely, or at the very least to see the system streamlined to ensure that everybody is aware of fee collection methods and possible penalties.

The attorney isn’t expecting to get much support from administrators from other Montgomery County schools at the meeting. Fleeger isn’t the only principal afraid to challenge Masood’s authority. The reason? Most people involved in Montgomery County athletics are convinced that late payers and nonpayers can be found in all 21 high schools in the county and that shoddy record keeping and enforcement are the only things that have deprived Masood of taking away everybody’s wins. Coaches and administrators realize they’re only a records check away from suffering the same fate as RMHS’s football team, so they’re not going to do anything to get on Masood’s bad side.

Not yet, anyway. But if the RMHS forfeits stand, look for vengeful Rockets supporters or aggressive media members to file Freedom of Information Act requests for all the county’s fee payment records.

“You will not believe how messy things are going to get in Montgomery County,” says coach Maust with a sly laugh. “I don’t want other schools to go through what we have here, but I personally know that this won’t end with Richard Montgomery.”

Some residents think that while mulling over the fees issue the county officials might also want to examine Masood’s overly exuberant enforcement.

“I can’t believe [Masood] was allowed to go after the kids so strong, like a bully,” says the mother of one of the sanctioned players. “I don’t know how far he would have taken this if [Van Grack] didn’t get involved. [Masood’s] conduct really makes you wonder if he should even be allowed to work with kids. When some time passes, people are going to look back at this whole thing and not believe what took place in Montgomery County.”

Masood doesn’t live in the county, which probably makes it easier for him to disregard the impact his rulings have had on students and their families. He’s just doing his job, he insists.

There’s evidence he’s still very much on the case. Last week, the Seneca Valley wrestling team forfeited several early season wins after members were found to have dressed for matches before paying their activities fee. The forfeits eliminate the squad’s chances for a berth in the postseason tournament.—Dave McKenna