Thousands of area students have been disappointed in the past month by false promises from an Anne Arundel-based company to bring Baltimore Ravens players into public schools.
But at one North Laurel elementary school, the disappointment turned to joy thanks to a quick-thinking counselor, a well-connected parent and a generous Ravens' wide receiver.
Students at Forest Ridge Elementary School were supposed to host a Ravens player for an anti-bullying assembly Oct. 5. But as the date drew closer, the organizer of the assembly, Joseph Gill, from the Annapolis company Odyssey Group LLC, kept postponing the event, school officials said, and canceled it the day before it was due to happen, leaving students sad and upset.
"They asked, 'Are we not supposed to wear our Ravens gear now?'," school counselor Rachel Herrera said. "It was so hyped for so long that the younger kids wound up being confused, and the older kids were disappointed."
Herrera called Stacey Hull, a parent of two Forest Ridge students, for some help. Stacey's husband, Lee Hull, is the wide receivers coach for the University of Maryland Terrapins, where he coached rookie Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. After a few last-minute phone calls from Lee and Stacey Hull, Smith agreed to come to Forest Ridge to speak with students.
"I was running errands when I got a call from the school and I panicked, thinking it was something to do with my two kids," said Stacey Hull, whose son and daughter are in the fifth and first grade, respectively. Herrera "asked if my husband knew anyone with the Ravens and I was stunned. It was a long shot, but I called my husband, who called Torrey, who said he'd do it."
Students had no notice, Herrera said, and when the first group of kids — kindergartners and first- and second-graders — walked into the assembly and saw Smith waiting for them, they "freaked out," Herrera said.
"They were jumping up and down and screaming, they were so excited," she said.
Smith stayed at the school for two assemblies.
"He was wonderful," Herrera said. "There was no preparation, but he was so great at interacting with the kids. He took questions and ran with them, elaborating. He was awesome and amazing and funny. The kids were eating it up."
After the event, Herrera said, students wrote Smith thank-you notes and talked about the assemblies for days.
"It lifted everyone's spirits a little bit," she said. "Even though what happened was terrible, everyone felt better after he spoke. He's a good guy."
Stacey Hull said the event meant a lot to Smith as well.
"He's a 22-year-old kid and this was his first experience with something like this," she said. "Everyone was so excited. We're glad it happened. It was just a phone call for us, but it meant so much more for so many other people."
The Ravens no-show at Forest Ridge was not the only one at an area school. On Oct. 28, The Baltimore Sun reported that Gill and his company charged 17 Anne Arundel schools more than $14,000 to bring several Ravens players to school assemblies, then failed to do so, according to school officials.
Ravens officials told The Sun that the team has no affiliation with Odyssey.
In an Oct. 7 letter, the newspaper reported, Trunnell Law LLC of Crofton, a law firm that represented Odyssey at the time, told the Anne Arundel school system that Odyssey had been working with an agent for several Ravens players. But when the relationship with the agent "fell apart," the company was unable to keep its commitments, the letter stated. Gill did not respond to messages.
In Howard County, schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the central office was still collecting information on how many county schools also were promised Ravens speakers that never appeared. So far, she said, Bellows Spring, Veterans, Thunder Hill and Guilford elementary schools reported doing so.
All told, Howard schools lost $4,800, Caplan said. Some of the schools' PTAs signed Gill's contract and paid for the assemblies; others, such as Forest Ridge, signed and paid as a school.
Caplan said the central office encourages local schools to submit contracts to Mark Blom, the system's general counsel, to review before signing, but the five schools who contracted with Odyssey did not. The central office had not been made aware of the situation before the news broke last week because, Caplan said, the schools probably thought of the no-shows as isolated incidents.
"They might have thought they were alone in this, and in trying to pursue it as a single situation, thinking it was just their school," Caplan said. "It probably didn't occur to them that this may have been bigger than them."
As far as options for refunding the money, Caplan said the school system has the option of a lawsuit.
"We have to see how many schools are involved, and how much money is at stake here," she said. "The PTAs may take action on their own because they're a separate entity."
At the assembly at Forest Ridge, staff and students learned that their own actions can carry them a long way, as the discussions with Smith, while focused on bullying, took on a more empowering tone.
"A big portion of it was bullying, but it was more about perseverance," Herrera said. "We didn't give up, and I didn't give up. We found someone to talk to our kids. … That was the big take-away: Never give up."