Costa coaches play defense against parent complaints - The Beach Reporter: Manhattan Beach

Costa coaches play defense against parent complaints

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Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 12:16 pm

The Mira Costa High School baseball and lacrosse teams have yet to play a game this year, but some parents say they’ve already suffered crucial losses.

The removal of Chris Jewett as the varsity lacrosse coach in December has stirred up a bevy of lacrosse families who feel he was unfairly forced out by a small group of parents.

Meanwhile, the duties of baseball coach Cassidy Olson were recently restricted, with the school district forbidding him to coach or attend a game until March 25 and limiting his attendance at practice from 2 to 3 p.m.

According to complaints filed by attorney Janice Hugener last November on behalf of a group of anonymous lacrosse parents, Jewett allegedly made disparaging comments to players, created a “pay-to-play” scheme in which players felt forced to play on Jewett’s paid club team in order to get playing time on the varsity team, and gave preferential treatment and unequal playing time.

The district has remained close-lipped on what prompted Jewett’s removal.

“I can confirm that Chris Jewett is not being offered the coaching assignment for this spring season,” said Superintendent Mike Matthews. “We have advertised for the position, candidates have applied, and I am confident that the high school staff will hire a coach in the very near future.”

This week, Jewett, who coached the lacrosse team for two seasons but did not teach at the school, said he feels vindicated after reading through the school district’s report detailing the investigation of the parent complaints. Jewett gave a copy of the report to The Beach Reporter.

The report states that the evidence, gathered from interviews with players, coaches and the principal, does not support that Jewett engaged in a “pay-to-play” scheme, rescheduled varsity practices because they conflicted with his club practices, or gave preferential treatment to certain players. The report said the evidence does support that he used inappropriate language during practices and games, including profanities.

“Mira Costa staff and parents are around me at practices,” Jewett said of the inappropriate language claim. “They can attest that I never engaged in any conduct unbecoming of a coach.”

Jewett noted that up to 70 parents have signed a petition supporting his reinstatement.

“If they had believed (that the charges were true) they wouldn’t have signed the petition,” he said.

Lacrosse parent Michelle Kissman spoke on behalf of 47 families, requesting Jewett’s reinstatement at the Jan. 16 school board meeting.

“We didn’t come to do harm to the district or parties involved, but to call us all to a higher purpose, which is to do the right thing, not the thing that is self-protective,” she said. “I do not believe the investigation that has been conducted was complete. I ask that you consider this: Battle lines are being drawn. Attorneys are being arrayed and forces preparing to do things that are not going to protect us, they’re not going to protect this district and they’re not going to protect the parties that are concerned about being protected.”

Kissman said the district and parents have a small window of opportunity to step back, reset and correct the “mistake.”

She encouraged the district and all the parents to sit down at a table with a professional mediator to try to come to a resolution.

Jewett said he will meet with his attorney to discuss options to clear his “good name” since many of the allegations were proven to be false.

“It’s been a shock that my relationship with Mira Costa has ended based on faulty allegations,” he said. “It’s been a really difficult period for me and my wife especially when you know you’ve been falsely accused … and lost your job that you love very much because of it.”

Trouble on the diamond

An investigation into Olson’s coaching began late last year, a few months after an attorney representing more than 37 parents, who remain anonymous, presented the school superintendent with a laundry list of complaints against Olson. The group of parents claimed that he bullied and verbally abused the players and parents, called colleges to interfere with players’ scholarship opportunities, tore up doctors’ notes and put players in harm’s way by making them bunt on one knee or run until they vomited. Parents or students who attempted to question his authority, some said, were met with retaliation from Olson either on the field or in the classroom.

Attorney Joe Di Monda sent a multi-page letter including the anonymous complaints to Matthews and Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale last September.

“There are a lot of parents that are extremely upset, telling the same story. They keep pointing at the same guy, making the same allegations with stories that have a common thread,” Di Monda said late last year. “That Olson destroys doctors’ notes for kids who are not supposed to practice or play, that players are being forced to run until they vomit.”

Di Monda said he understands wanting to toughen up a sports team, but his clients say Olson’s coaching style is dangerous.

“They’re not training a bunch of service people to go fight in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re training a bunch of kids to play baseball.”

Di Monda said the parents’ claims were initially brushed off by Matthews and Dale because they were anonymous.

But after a few meetings with Di Monda and a handful of parents, the school district decided to investigate the claims, tasking interim Athletic Director Don Morrow and a vice principal to interview every member of the baseball program.

Senior player Kevin Lopez said he was interviewed for about 10 minutes regarding Olson’s program and disciplinary methods and then went back to class.

“I’ve been in Olson’s program for four years, and I really like having Olson as a coach,” he said this week. “He’s hard at times, but that’s what coaches are meant for, to push you and motivate you to do your best and to work as a team.”

Lopez said Olson, who has been the head coach since 2010 and was the JV coach before that, does yell at the players sometimes, but not to criticize them.

“If we’re trying to do something as a team, and you’re trying to be your own guy, it’s not good for the team and that would be a situation (when Olson would yell),” he said.

Morrow said in the interviews, he was looking for evidence of abuse, bullying, intimidation and if the kids were forced to play and practice in a climate of fear, as had been alleged in the parent complaints.

“The overwhelming majority of players described the coach as being tough and disciplined, and they enjoyed playing for him,” he said. “I found there to be no environment of bullying, intimidation or abuse.”

Morrow recommended that Olson, who had been temporarily suspended as coach while the interviews were taking place, be reinstated as head coach immediately.

Instead, the district limited his time at practice and will keep him from 12 of the team’s 30 games this season.

In a letter to Di Monda in December, Dale said “though the evidence did not support a finding of physical, mental or emotional abuse, certain allegations were supported by the evidence gathered. Therefore, we will be taking appropriate remedial action relating to the supported allegations.” Dale declined to comment further on which allegations prompted the sanctions.

It seems, in the end, nobody won. The parents who complained wanted Olson removed as coach permanently, and Olson’s supporters say the team, which has its first game Feb. 22, is now in jeopardy without its head coach’s guidance.

“(The parents) think this was a whitewash,” Di Monda said. “The bureaucrats stuck together, which is what bureaucrats do. At some point a kid will get hurt, and the school will get whacked for a lot of money … They’ll fire the principal for doing a poor investigation and not caring about what the parents say.”

Olson supporters plan to appeal to the school board at its Feb. 6 meeting to have the sanctions lifted.

“For the players, (the sanction) is terrible,” said Geoff Wells, president of the baseball booster club and the father of a senior player. “Almost half of our season without the head coach and without longer than a one-hour practice.”

A typical practice is three hours to include time for hitting, fielding, bunt defenses, base running and pitching, Wells said. He is afraid his son, who tried out in San Diego last weekend in front of 25 college coaches, will suffer.

“Because he’s been unable to get extra (practice), it puts him behind the 8-ball compared to kids at other schools that have it going on right now,” Wells said. “I think many people feel like you’re going to fire the coach or you’re not going to. Don’t put him in a situation where he runs around with his hands tied, and we can’t compete at the highest level.”

Olson, who is also a history teacher at the school, said the restriction of his duties will only hurt the players.

“I understand the position the district is in when lawyers get involved, but this solves nothing,” he said. “I’m still allowed to coach from 2 to 3 but then we must stop because my assistant coaches are afraid to be sued and have their reputations damaged.”

Matthews said one of the benefits of living in Manhattan Beach is parents are supportive of their children and involved in their lives.

“Along with that, though, comes a heavy involvement, sometimes in the form of complaints,” he said. “Our job is to evaluate a complaint and make a determination on what course of action to take.”

Olson said the teacher’s union and some parents have repeatedly asked school administrators for the report detailing the player interviews, but they refuse to release it.

“I just want the truth of what the players said to come out and for them to get back to playing baseball,” Olson said.

Olson and others see a bigger issue with high school athletics in the area.

“Last week, a parent group got the lacrosse coach fired, and last year both basketball coaches were fired,” he said. “As the parent of a 1-year-old in this community, I worry for our future. I would hate to see Manhattan Beach become a community where the players whose parents have lawyers automatically play. It’s not fair to the hard-working kids who deserve to play and make the team.”

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