Parents respond to allegations against Gilbert football coach, players

Parents of the Gilbert High School football team share their thoughts on the alleged discrimination that led to the assault of a player.
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 9:50 PM MST
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GILBERT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- As football teams across Arizona play under the Friday night lights, a football player and his mother are leveling serious accusations against Gilbert High School’s football coach and players. Senior Deion Smith says he was harassed and assaulted, claiming the Tiger’s coach didn’t take action. However, other parents are backing the coach after the allegations broke.

Arizona’s Family spoke with several parents with strong opinions on the claims against head coach Derek Zellner. Darryl Toppin and Jasmin Cerimagic are parents of football players on the Tigers team, quickly coming to Coach Zellner’s defense. “When I heard about this, I was like, that’s not Coach Z,” said Toppin.

Smith alleged months of discrimination ended with him being knocked out by a teammate earlier this week, but Cerimagic says this is the first she’s hearing about the claims. “We’ve never experienced any racial prejudice from Coach Z or his staff,” Cerimagic said.

Toppin and Cerimagic both have sophomore sons on the football team, who are half-Black. Both students have told their parents racism isn’t tolerated on the team or at the school. “We haven’t had any issues,” said Cerimagic.

Both are among a larger group of parents who feel Coach Zellner and his staff treat all players like family. “They want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and included,” said parent Lacie Nole. Meanwhile, parent Alex Santa Cruz had nothing but praise for the coach. “A lot of the parents love him. He’s a very nice, approachable coach. Something that you really look for, somebody to take the time to make a young man out of your athlete,” he said.

None of the parents say they’re aware of any racist behavior associated with the team. However, sophomore Amir Pierson says there have been other racist incidents around campus. Amir says since last year, a football player has said the N-word multiple times at school. “It just started to build up, and it started to bother me after a while. And it just became too much, and I had to come forward with it,” she explained.

Amir’s mom, Brittany, contacted Gilbert High School about the incidents last May. Brittany said she’s frustrated that the football player is still on the team and at the school. “I specifically voiced my concern that a student could get hurt or these things would escalate. It validates the thought that Gilbert tolerates this culture,” Brittany said.

The school is aware of Pierson’s allegations, but they’re not a part of the current investigation surrounding the claims made by Smith regarding the football team. Parents say the only way to move forward is to continue the investigation. “Speak with his teachers, speak with his peers, speak with the student athletes. Get a diverse group of people, and get to the bottom of it,” said Cerimagic.

Gilbert Public Schools said that because of the ongoing investigation, Zellner couldn’t comment on the issue. Since it’s a developing situation, Gilbert police and the Gilbert Public School District investigations are ongoing.