Crossing the line

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Dennis Drown used to coach boys basketball at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. He is now the coach of the girls’ team at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. The game is the same, but his methods are not.

“You have to be very guarded,” Drown said. “When I coached boys, I’d use my hands for a gentle push or a nudge and not worry about where I was touching them. With girls, you can’t do that. If I need to move a girl for demonstration purposes, I’ll touch only her shirt. It’s more my concern than anyone else’s. I don’t think the girls have a problem with my showing them how to box out or demonstrating proper rebounding technique. But you have to be very cautious.”

Welcome to the world of high school and amateur athletics, where the actions of a tiny minority have had enormous repercussions, and a dirty little secret is increasingly finding daylight. Whether it’s suggestive remarks or dating, inappropriate physical contact or outright sexual abuse, improper relationships between coach and student is a significant and sensitive issue confronting everyone connected with prep and amateur sports.

“It is a very, very touchy situation,” Spingarn High School track coach Bruce Williams said, no pun intended.

Whether athletes are role models is up for debate, but no one argues if high school coaches should fulfill that responsibility. They occupy a position of trust, guidance and leadership, helping influence young, impressionable lives. If athletes can’t look up to their coaches, who can they look up to?

The vast majority of coaches are dedicated, selfless, underpaid, overworked men and women whose access to students often exceeds that of parents. Such access creates the opportunity to build special relationships. But when the relationships take a wrong turn, when the trust is violated, it cuts to the emotional core.

Stories that detail the arrest and/or firing of a coach for a sex-related incident have a devastating effect, and they seem to appear with frightening regularity. The stories emanate from towns as small as Mt. Airy, N.C., where a popular basketball coach this year was fired and charged with several crimes, including three counts of statutory rape, and in cities as large as Washington, where a part-time middle school coach was fired in February for reportedly fondling two students. As a result, the District has toughened an existing policy of requiring fingerprints for background checks from all prospective and current teachers and coaches.

Other responses have been stronger. Because of a sex-abuse case involving a figure skater named Jessica Roos, Connecticut last year passed a law making it a felony for a coach to have sexual contact with a high school athlete under 19 years of age, and with an amateur athlete outside of school under 18.

A few other states have similar laws. Nevada, for example, in 1997 made it a felony for anyone “with authority over youth” to have sex with anyone younger than 18.

“The issue of sexual exploitation by coaches and institutions is a problem that is lying beneath the surface of our communities and it needs to be addressed,” Connecticut Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey, who sponsored the legislation, told the state General Assembly last year.

Sharkey’s is hardly a lone voice.

“I think it is a major problem,” said Alan Chin, athletic director for D.C. public schools. “We need to have our coaches and anyone else who deals with students, checked out. When you come into contact with a student, it really impacts them. It impacts upon how students develop.

“You have someone you trust and someone you believe in, and all of a sudden you find out this coach is a pedophile or a child molester. It hurts the child’s psyche. Children look to the schools and they look to the teachers and coaches as someone they can believe in.”

Most coaches also teach, and criminal background checks of teachers is required almost everywhere nationwide. Coaches who do not teach, a growing number, or who come from outside the school system, are also checked. But even though Chin said running fingerprint checks on coaches has been required in D.C. public schools “for the last four or five years,” this was not always done. “It was dependent on the principal [of each school],” he said.

It is being done now. Last February, Reginald Robinson Jr., a part-time track and basketball coach at the Ronald H. Brown Middle School, was arrested and charged with two counts of child abuse. According to published reports, Robinson had been hired even though he was a registered sex offender. He reportedly committed a sex crime as recently as 2001 and was fired by the D.C. school system in 1994 for a sex crime.

Robinson has since pleaded guilty to one count of attempted second-degree child sexual abuse. District officials, meanwhile, reacted with mandatory fingerprinting of all current and prospective D.C. public school employees. Fingerprints are considered an effective means of checking someone’s criminal background.

“It’s not a new policy,” D.C. assistant superintendent Ralph Neal said. “It’s a policy that has been in effect, that employees of the D.C. public school system, before being hired, must go through a fingerprint background check. What we have done is we have now strictly enforced the policy for coaches who are employees and non-employees of the D.C. public school system.”

Neal said he instructed Chin not to pay a coach for his or her work during the spring semester if that coach has yet to be fingerprinted. Spingarn’s Williams, a coach for 32 years and president of the National High School Coaches Association, recently was fingerprinted for the first time. He said all of his coaches have been cleared, but added that he heard “at some other schools, they did find police records and things of that nature.”

Most suburban school districts in Maryland and Virginia have long required fingerprinting for prospective coaches. But no matter how many safeguards are taken, there is still the human factor to consider. Robinson somehow slipped through the cracks. So did the educational aide at the District’s Ballou High School who was hired in 1999 despite background checks revealing he was a known sex offender. Last month, he was arrested and charged with molesting a 17-year-old student.

Much of what goes on in high schools stays below the radar. In some cases, coaches are not re-hired because of sexual impropriety, but their actions do not reach the courts and thus are not publicized. Montgomery County high school athletic director Duke Beattie said his employees are “well-versed in professionalism,” but when asked if he has had first-hand experience with this particular issue, he said, “Yes, we’ve had to deal with it.” Added Anne Arundel County AD Marlene Kelly, “If a person is dismissed, it might not be a legal issue.”

Kelly, Beattie and other athletic directors say they make sure their coaches are counseled and educated on what constitutes inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. As a member of the equity committee of the National Federation of High Schools, Kelly is working on a pamphlet dealing with sexual harassment that will be distributed to all members.

There is no national coaching certification program, although organizations like the National Federation of Coaches offer training courses. In some school districts, such as Fairfax County, coaches are required to enroll in such courses, but in most districts they are not. Part of the training includes the do’s and don’ts — not only the obvious ones, but such scenarios as driving athletes home and going on unchaperoned overnight trips.

“People have to be very careful,” Chantilly High School AD Donna King said.

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People are being careful. Beyond high school sports, several amateur athletic associations also unequivocally forbid sexual relations of any type between coaches and athletes. Last October, Little League made background checks mandatory for anyone who has “repetitive access to, or contact with players or teams.” Since 1998, the organization has had a “Child Protection Program” that, among other things, gives advice on how to spot potential child abusers.

The United States Figure Skating Association in 2000 established clear guidelines designed to define and prevent sexual harassment. United States Water Polo’s code of ethics prohibits “sexual intimacies” with current and even former athletes less than two years removed from the coach-athlete relationship. Nevertheless, USWP was rocked by two scandals in which coaches pleaded guilty to sexually abusing their athletes.

The scary truth is that all the guidelines and ethical codes, background checks and fingerprinting, training courses and pamphlets and expectations of adhering to a higher standard are sometimes rendered meaningless. And often, there is no way to project or predict who will cross the line. “Many sexual abusers are respected members of the community and many have known their victims for an extended period of time,” wrote Michigan State professor Vern Seefeldt in a report appearing on the school’s Web site. Seefeldt is a former director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.

In Mt. Airy, N.C., a year after his team won the 1-A state championship, the boys high school basketball coach was fired after being charged with having sexual relations with two students — neither of them his players. Kemp Phillips, a former star at Appalachian State University, faces several charges, including three counts of statutory rape.

“I think it’s fair to say most of us were shocked,” Mt. Airy superintendent Bill Church said.

Phillips grew up in Mt. Airy, played college ball nearby, coached in a neighboring town. He was well-known and well-liked. Criminal background checks turned up nothing before he was hired in 1997. References vouched for his abilities and his character and nothing Phillips did off the court provided a hint of what would transpire. “I think most of the folks here felt they knew the young man,” Church said.

Not that it was their fault, but most of the folks were wrong. Asked how to prevent such an occurrence, Church, a former coach, replied, “I wish I knew the answer to that. It’s a tremendous dilemma. I think most of us, in our business, are doing everything we can to ensure the right type of person is involved with children. We’d like to think we do everything that is necessary to know if there is a problem. But even with everything we do, it’s almost impossible to guarantee that incidents such as this will not occur.”

When they do occur, an entire profession is indicted.

“It paints everyone with the same broad brush,” said Rick Strunk, associate executive director of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. “It’s interesting to me that coaches 400 miles from Mt. Airy were not only lamenting their colleague, but also how it affects people’s perception of coaches.”

The perception only worsens when incidents keep happening. In Blue Ridge, a small town in the western part of North Carolina, the former high school baseball coach and athletic director was sentenced to not less than 64 months after pleading guilty to eight felonies and four misdemeanors in connection with a sex scandal at his school.

Strunk also noted that in Chapel Hill, a girls’ softball coach was fired after it was revealed that a tanning bed he owned and was allowing some of his players to use at a discount had peep holes in “strategic areas.” All the background checks on this coach, said Strunk, “checked out perfectly.”

Coaches acting improperly toward students and athletes is not a new concept. The subject has been studied and discussed for years, as in a 1994 document prepared by the Women’s Sports Foundation titled, “Prevention of Sexual Harassment in Athletic Settings: An Educational Resource Kit for Athletic Administrators.” But media coverage never has been more intense, and examples of bad behavior that once were kept quiet are now printed and broadcast for all to see and hear.

Some speculate that other changes in society, specifically in sexuality, have perhaps created an environment where incidents should not be unexpected. “Things have changed,” Church said. “Maybe some things don’t seem as severe as maybe they were 10 or 15 years ago. The type of things we consider acceptable have changed dramatically. There’s a tendency to take some of the negative onus from what should be classified as inappropriate.”

Jessica Roos, then admittedly a naive, immature 18-year-old skater, did not know that being touched by her coach, Robert Young, was inappropriate. It continued for four years. “I was, and am still, a very trusting person and an honest person,” said Roos, now 26, married and a skating coach herself. “Those things right there made me vulnerable.”

So did the fact that Roos desperately wanted to pursue a skating career. “I was on a mission to prove I belonged in skating,” she said. Her coach knew that, and exploited the situation.

“If something seems too good to be true, often it is,” she said. “That was the trap I fell into.”

Because Roos was 18 when the physical contact began, she could not file criminal charges. She filed a civil suit and the case was settled out of court. Young was banned from coaching within the U.S. Figure Skating Association, but he continues to coach young figure skaters, even though his actions led to a new law being enacted. Roos, from Simsbury, Conn., was supported by the statements of former student-athletes from nearby Southington, who claimed they had been molested by a high school coach.

“I coach now, and kids come to me with their concerns and fears and high school problems,” Roos said. “I’m appalled at what some of these kids are facing, things I had no clue about. They come to me and talk about things they’re not comfortable talking about with their parents. But, as a coach, I have to draw the line about what I can say, and what I can’t say. The line gets foggy.”

Based on her experience, Roos offers this advice for young athletes: “Keep the relationship with your coach more businesslike than emotional. Don’t let that line be crossed.”

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