Four members of the Petaluma National Little League team that captivated Sonoma County last summer were suspended from school for two days this month after an altercation with a fifth team member at Petaluma Junior High.
The mother of the fifth boy said her son has been bullied by the others since the all-star team went to San Bernardino last August in its journey to the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania.
Parents of the other boys deny any bullying and said a minor incident has been blown far out of proportion.
The 13 members of the team became hometown heroes as they fought back from the brink of defeat several times and represented the West division with distinction in the internationally televised youth baseball competition. After finishing third in the world, the team returned home to a ticker-tape parade downtown, city proclamations and invitations to community events for months afterward.
According to parents of three of the boys, two incidents occurred that led to the suspensions.
On April 12, three or four of the boys tussled with the fifth in a school stairwell. One of the boys gave the fifth a "titty twister" by pinching and twisting his nipple. A few days later, a fourth boy called the fifth one "gay" or used a phrase similar to "you're gay."
The Press Democrat isn't identifying the boys because of their ages.
All four boys were suspended for two days each. Three were suspended for inappropriately touching their teammate, and the other for the comment.
Principal John Lehmann said he couldn't discuss the discipline because of confidentiality laws involving students. The school didn't characterize the behavior as "bullying," which Lehmann said is generally defined as intimidating behavior over a period of time.
"The kids were disciplined," he said. "They're back in school. They received the appropriate counseling and support. Everything seems to be going well."
Nearly three students are suspended every week, on average, at Petaluma Junior High, which suspended 99 students last year, according to figures reported to the state.
The mother of the fifth boy said this month's incident was the first she'd heard of from her son. The boy then told her he had been a target since the team went to Southern California in August, she said.
"Mostly it has been using words like, 'You're gay, you're a homo, you're a nothing,'" she said. "But this was the worst incident and it was all of them at the same time."
Parents of two of the boys who were suspended say the incident was just rough-housing between boys who have known each other for most of their lives.
Coach Mike Slate said he and the other two coaches never saw or heard of any inappropriate behavior between the boys during their tournament play last summer. The three coaches and boys spent almost 24 hours a day together for a full month.
"If we would have seen or heard about any kind of bullying, it would have been addressed right then and there," he said.
The mother of one of the boys who was suspended flatly denied any harassment occurred. She said the school properly handled the inappropriate touching.
"I'm not defending my son because he did put his hands on another boy," she said. "But bullying didn't happen."