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Teachers and coaches talk about proper student coach relationships

It takes just one allegation of sexual abuse in the community to raise concerns.
Several Montgomery County Public Schools coaches and physical education teachers were interviewed for this series on protecting students in coach-player relationships.
Many felt an open relationship between parents and students was an important factor, and all agreed it was important for teachers and coaches to play it safe by keeping their doors open and leaving no room for questions.
Here is what they had to say:
- Maggie Dyer, Girls Basketball Coach, Wootton High School, Rockville
- Todd Garner, Swimming and Diving sports director, Montgomery County Public Schools
- Mary Horwitz, Instructional Resource Teacher for health and physical education, Robert Frost Middle School, Rockville
- Vicki Rill, Physical Education resource teacher, Quince Orchard High School, Gaithersburg
- Geoff Schaefer, girls swim coach, Walt Whitman High School, Bethesda
- Raymond Trail, volleyball coach, Northwood High School, Silver Spring

Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sex abuse trial and allegations against local swim coach Rick Curl got everyone talking.

Montgomery County parents hope the conversation continues.

Parents say although school system officials have the responsibility to hire coaches, it is up to them to see that their children are safe.

If the community does not tolerate sexually abusive behaviors, then there will not be a place for sexual predators in the community, said Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the health and safety committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse in June. A month later, a woman came forward claiming she and Curl had an inappropriate sexual relationship 29 years ago when she was 13. Montgomery County Police is investigating her allegations.

“As we saw in the Penn State scandal,” Burkinshaw said, “if the community culture tolerates a negative behavior — and not confronting it can be a sign of acceptance — it can spiral out of control for years. It takes a village to keep our community safe, and it starts with not being afraid to have courageous conversations about difficult subjects.”

It is critical for the school board, as well as the entire community, to continue to emphasize the need to encourage reporting of sexual harassment, said Shirley Brandman, school board president.

The board’s policies require all staff members who become aware of any inappropriate conduct by any employee to report it to the administration or authorities “as quickly as possible,” Brandman wrote in an email.

“When we adopt policies regarding student welfare — and when we review annual data around serious incident reports — the board publicly reiterates the need to encourage reporting of incidents to help foster a culture where students feel safe to seek help if needed and staff understand their obligation to report,” Brandman wrote in an email.

Fred Evans, a candidate this year for school board, said he hopes that the cases will put the topic of sexual abuse back on everyone’s radar.

“I think you use these situations as an opportunity to reaffirm what the standards are,” said Evans, a past principal, teacher and coach for the school system. “It is a topic that obviously needs to be discussed, and what I hope for is for the discussion to be rational and reasonable, without creating hysteria. There are behaviors that are appropriate and there are behaviors that are inappropriate, and that is it.”

Jim Joseph, booster club president at Walter Johnson High School, said events in the news provide opportunities for parents to discuss sexual abuse with their children.

“My sense is that it is the parents’ responsibility to protect the children,” he said. “... Teaching our own kids to be alert and aware.”

Last school year, about 704 teachers, 119 school staff members and 271 people not employed by the school system coached about 21,500 high school athletes in Montgomery County Pubic Schools, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said. Those numbers don’t include the volunteer coaches, which the school system does not track, Tofig said.

The school system vets the backgrounds of all its coaches just as thoroughly as it does all public school employees; not all coaches are paid employees, as some coaches volunteer.

All coaches, volunteer or paid, must go through two separate background checks, one through the state and one through the FBI, said William G. Beattie, director of school system athletics.

Principals and athletic directors at individual schools interview the coaches, Beattie said.

If a coach leaves his or her position for a year or more, the school system requires a new set of background checks, Beattie said. If an employee commits a crime while employed for the school system, the school system is made aware, he said.

Despite the precautions school system officials have taken, allegations of sexual abuse have occurred — three in the past school year.

In June, a Julius West Middle School teacher and part-time track and field coach at Richard Montgomery High School resigned from the school system after being accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl whom he taught in middle school and coached at Richard Montgomery. The charges against the coach were dropped because of a legal technicality.

Two educators, an English teacher at Neelsville Middle School in Germantown and a former media services technician at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, are awaiting court dates after being accused in May of engaging in sexual contact with students at their schools, according to county police.

It is important people realize that the events that make headlines are not isolated, said Dan Schuster, assistant director of coach education at the National Federation of State High School Associations, the umbrella organization for all state high school sports associations nationwide.

“This is something that is happening across the country,” Schuster said. “It is about awareness. There are things that we can do to help administrators, parents, coaches and students understand the situations, and understand the signs of this type of situations and what to do about it when you see it.”

All paid coaches for Montgomery County Public Schools must take two courses offered by the national federation, one about heat acclimatization and heat illness prevention, and the other regarding sports concussions.

The course that the federation offers that discusses sexual abuse, titled “Creating a Safe and Respectful Environment,” is not required.

After the Sandusky case, in July the federation began to offer the course for free; it used to cost $20, Schuster said.

The Penn State case “opened some eyes,” Schuster said. Since making the course free, the number of people taking the course has tripled, he said.

Beattie said the high school athletic handbook explains coaches must exercise appropriate behavior as a leader of their program and a role model. This also is stressed at a coaches meeting, although specific examples of what an appropriate relationship looks like are not given, he said.

Rebecca Smondrowski and Annita Seckinger, who are both running for the Board of Education this year, said they think the school system should give out guidelines on appropriate coach to player relationships.

That is not something that the school system currently does, Beattie said.

And although the national organization offers the classes and guidelines, the state branch of the organization, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, does not give any, said Ned Sparks, the association’s executive director.

Longtime coaches say the guidelines should be common sense — there are certain things you just don’t do, such as be alone in a room with a player, or drive one home from practice without first talking to a parent.

Coaches who were interviewed said they knew from their teaching backgrounds what was appropriate.

One thing the school system could look into is making sure that everyone — volunteer and nonpaid coaches, as well as coaches who are employees — is getting the same information regarding what is appropriate, Evans said.

Peter Kenah, who has been coaching girls varsity basketball at Walt Whitman High School for 11 years, said the school system does a good job at teaching appropriate behaviors. He remembers that during his initial coaching job interview, he was surprised most of the questions were more about his personality than his background; they asked him how he would deal with certain situations, in the locker room or with parents.

Kenah, who teaches U.S. government at the school, said he doesn’t put himself in certain situations.

“Perception is reality is a great quote,” Kenah said. The only time he hugs his athletes is when they are walking across the stage at graduation, he said.

The coaching scandals, he said, frustrate him.

“[Coaching] is a wonderful experience, and it gets tainted when you hear about the various scandals, and because I do have daughters I see how impressionable adults are on kids,” he said. “It is unconscionable how coaches could take advantage of that position.”

Rob Curtz, girls soccer coach at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, said establishing a relationship with not just players — but also players’ parents — helps build trust.

“I want them to be able to come to me, and me go to them,” he said.

Parents also should attempt to get to know the adults who are in their children’s lives, Smondrowski said.

“I think that is huge,” she said. “I think that falls a little bit on the coach to do the initial outreach, but it also falls on the family ... these people can have a tremendously great influence on students’ lives.”

Joseph, who has a rising freshman at Walter Johnson High this year, agrees forming a close relationship with a coach is crucial for parents.

“The first level of defense is your level of involvement with your children,” he said.

Joseph said all parents are faced with the duty of protecting their children.

“It is always in the front of your mind,” he said. “It is a job we have until the day we die.”

jbondeson@gazette.net