Out of bounds? What happens when Palo Alto high school athletes and their parents complain that a coach has crossed the line
Palo Alto High baseball player Noah Sneider and his fellow senior teammates faced a problem in spring 2009: They were deeply troubled about the way their new coach, Donny Kadokawa, was managing the team.
While they respected the coach's vast baseball knowledge, they felt he was riding the players too hard and to bad effect (the team's record then was 0-9). They wanted to suggest more positive and less angry ways of communication.
Kadokawa initially refused to meet, shocking the seniors, Sneider recalled.
"As seniors, we felt a leadership responsibility to have a conversation with the coach about how to improve the team environment. It seemed like a basic thing to us," Sneider said.
Parent Joe Rizza said of the rebuff: "Donny was building a program for the future. ... His attention was on the younger guys. The seniors were just so much baggage."
Assistant baseball coach Dick Held a retired FBI regional director, former Paly parent and assistant coach for girls' basketball and baseball for the past decade shuttled back and forth between players and Kadokawa to open up communication, Sneider said. Kadokawa ultimately called the whole team together.
"A fiery and uncomfortable discussion broke out" that upset the players, the "Viking Magazine," a Paly student publication, reported.]
"The gist of his message was: 'Suck it up. Not everyone is going to be nice to you in life,'" Sneider said.
Kadokawa recalled the meeting in an interview with the Weekly: "The seniors felt it was their program, (that) they could do as they pleased."
He told them, "You either buy into the system or not; you can leave if you don't like it."
A few weeks later Steven Burk, the senior starting pitcher, left. Sneider later followed.
By that time "I couldn't even remember what I used to love about baseball," Sneider said.
At the end of the 2009 season, Kadokawa was told by Paly Athletic Director Earl Hansen that he would not be returning to Paly.
As the Weekly's months-long investigation of the athletic programs at Paly and Gunn High found, speaking up about a coach's behavior can be fraught with complications. The very act of raising issues deeply affects people on all sides of the problem players, coaches, teammates, parents and school administrators.
Emotions run the gamut. Players fear retaliation; coaches and their supporters grow defensive. Those involved in trying to address a complaint become frustrated with one another and make accusations about each others' motives. Anger spills over when issues are not resolved.
The importance placed on high school sports and the deep bonds formed through hours of practice lead people to quickly take sides and hold fast to fixed viewpoints, which exacerbates problems rather than leading to understanding and better relationships between players and coaches.
The investigation found that students and parents who are unable to resolve problems directly with a coach face the prospect of approaching administrators in a system with no clear or consistent guidelines or procedures for how complaints should be made or investigated. (See side on the complaint process.) In the past, that lack of transparency and unclear expectations added strain to an already stressful situation, parents have said. For example, parents who thought they had initiated a complaint by meeting with Paly officials later learned that the school would not take action unless the complaint was made in writing.
In spite of district policies requiring (1) that any written complaint receive a response within 10 days and (2) that copies of complaints and the school's response be provided to the coach in question, the Weekly found that Paly has repeatedly failed to do either.
The Weekly's examination of more than 600 pages of documents provided by the school district in response to a Public Records Act request for communications between parents and school officials about coaching concerns showed a qualitative difference in the written exchanges at the two high schools.
The documents, which covered the past two years, reveal that Gunn administrators generally responded more quickly and directly.
A greater volume of written complaints about coaching conduct were generated by Paly parents, as well as parent letters in support of coaches revealing strong, sometimes personal divisions.
The documents also reveal the enormous range of sports issues raised in addition to coach conduct including tryouts and cuts, length and frequency of practices, disputes involving referees, safety issues, whether fundraising events are compulsory, whether students must travel by team bus, tournament conflicts with holidays and Homecoming, fears of retaliation, problems in finding and retaining coaches, playing time concerns, team management and communication issues.
They also show the diplomacy with which school officials have attempted to address specific concerns, especially in the controversial cases. Also, administrators walked a fine line, having to skirt personnel privacy issues while still addressing parental concerns, which required considerable communication skills.
Ultimately, the Weekly found that the schools' investigations into questionable coaching (whether based on complaints raised by parents or players or on direct administrator observations) resulted in various forms of discipline. School officials call their approach "progressive," ranging from the athletic director talking about specific problems with the coach to termination of the coach's employment.
"What we do depends on the level of severity," Gunn Principal Noreen Likins said. If a coach is warned and the problem continues, "We would make it very clear that if he crosses the line there will be this consequence, and then we have to follow through with consequences."
Paly Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson said the time allowed for compliance depends on the situation.
Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers emphasized the need for active progress: "The expectation would be that the athletic director and school administrators would actively move that coach toward the standards ... or else go back out and find a different coach."
Both schools, on a regular basis, have done exactly that, according to school officials.
The schools "have been willing to pull the trigger on coaches they think are not appropriate. ... (They) have a track record on doing that," Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
Unlike the Paly senior baseball players, not all high school athletes with concerns about coach treatment decide to speak up. They report worrying that raising issues about their coach will lead to retaliation despite a state law that forbids it and official assurances that it does not happen. They fear their coach will give them less playing time, treat them poorly or provide unfavorable college recommendations. (Even those who have spoken up often felt these same fears but managed to overcome them, they said.)
Paly Athletic Director Hansen isn't sympathetic to hesitating students.
"Get over it!" he said. "We do not hire coaches who are mean, unforgiving people and if they are they don't last long."
Gunn High School Athletic Director Chris Horpel also expects athletes to talk to their coaches. Kids need to "man up" and deal directly with any problem, he said.
Members of the Paly boys' basketball team did just that when they decided to band together and speak up last December, after individuals' complaints about their coach the previous season had had little effect.
"I had players come to me last season, last summer, during spring practice," acknowledged Hansen, who said he retained basketball coach Andrew Slayton after addressing concerns with him and receiving his assurances.
According to three of the players, however, problems continued, culminating in a highly disputed player ranking in December that placed the previous season's starters near the bottom. Slayton declined to explain to the team his reasons. The players called a team meeting to air the issues, and Slayton invited Hansen to attend.
A group of players later met separately with Hansen.
"So what do you want to do?" Hansen asked those assembled in his office, according to player accounts.
"We want him fired," one player responded. Each player in turn confirmed his agreement out loud, at Hansen's request. It was unanimous.
Hansen fired Slayton and hired another coach. It was an unusual mid-season removal, only the second in Hansen's career, he said. (Slayton declined an interview with the Weekly but e-mailed: "While my interpretation of some of the events is different, I respect the fact that that is how some of the players perceived these events.")
Several players indicated that acting together as a team facilitated fast action. It also helped that it was students, not parents, gathered in Hansen's office.
"I will listen to kids before I listen to parents," Hansen emphatically told the Weekly.
Palo Alto parents may have a reputation as quick to complain, but the Weekly found that many agonize over whether to voice their concerns about a coach and, if so, how to do it. Like their children, parents worry that raising issues will have negative consequences both immediately and in the long run for the athletes and their younger siblings, according to those interviewed.
At Gunn, parents often wait until the end of the season before complaining, Principal Likins said.
"They are afraid of the repercussions or playing time being lost, so it is tricky," she said.
They also fear they'll be branded as one of the outspoken parents who second-guess coaching strategies or complain vociferously about more playing time for their child, according to many parents. (See sidebar: tips for sports parents.)
"Cranky parents spoil it for the rest," former Palo Alto school board member Mandy Lowell said. "They give parents a bad name."
Overzealous parents aside, numerous parents say that school administrators can have deaf ears when it comes to even legitimate concerns a fact that discourages communication.
One Paly parent reported widespread frustration: "If you complain about anything, it's automatically presumed that you're griping about playing time that is, unless your kid is playing all the time, in which case you probably don't want to jeopardize that by complaining."
Baseball parent Greg Avis said he called and e-mailed Hansen multiple times during spring 2009 and never got a response.
"I finally gave up. It was useless," he said.
Criticism about Hansen's lack of responsiveness in his role as athletic director was echoed by many parents in Weekly interviews.
Hansen declined to comment on the criticism.
Superintendent Skelly, however, said the district's job is "to make sure the school has been responsive to a person's issue and that they've taken appropriate action to that, that they haven't shined it on, that they have taken it seriously, that they've been responsive to the issues there."
There are times when parents have met with administrators and had success.
Taylor Lovely, a Paly '09 grad and starter on the basketball team, said she and others on her team did not know how to go about approaching coach Scott Peters to discuss problems with "yelling, losing his temper, too much negativity."
So a group of concerned parents decided to meet with McEvoy. Lovely said she was nervous about this because she liked Peters and didn't want him to think she was going against him.
In the end, though, she said it was a "great relief" to have surfaced the concerns. Lovely felt Peters listened and took the concerns to heart.
"We saw improvements," she said. She credited the parent meeting with bringing about a healthier environment on the team.
Olivia Garcia, also a Paly '09 grad and basketball starter, likewise benefited from parental involvement. She complained to her father about Peters' yelling and swearing at her on the bench during a game (for showing "attitude," she said).
"I felt disrespected," she said. Her father arranged a meeting with himself, Olivia, Hansen and Peters, and they ironed it out, according to Olivia. After that, she said things were "better" with Peters. As the season continued, Garcia counted herself among Peters' supporters.
"I also realized after talking with my brothers (one had played basketball at Paly) that this was pretty standard coach behavior, and that I shouldn't take it so personally," she said.
Gunn parent Mary Perricone, the mother of four student athletes, also took direct action when her daughters' coach's conduct caused her serious concern five years ago. She complained first to the coach and then to Tom Jacoubowsky, then-athletic director (now assistant principal).
"Many people are bullied into silence, but I believe in standing up to bullies. Regardless of any defenses they might throw up at you that you're really concerned about playing time or whatever. The point is that their behavior is the issue and needs to be addressed," she said.
Meanwhile, Perricone took matters into her own hands. During a game when it appeared to her that the coach was "berating" her daughter, using swear words, she protested the treatment, pulled her daughters from the game and took them home. Soon after her daughters quit the team the only time her kids quit a team. The coach did not come back the next year, she said.
"The school responded well, although it took longer than it should have," she said.
The Weekly's investigation found that Gunn and Paly parents and athletes who decided to voice concerns were often unsure about what they could expect or whether administrators were following proper (or any) procedure.
According to district policy, any complaint that is made in writing will receive a response. Usually the author will be contacted and the school official will try to solve the problem. At Gunn, Likins said: "Typically we respond and usually very quickly. We might in fact invite the parent to come in."
Likins said such complaints should be shared with the coach.
Bowers agreed: "The expectation is that a written complaint will be shared with an employee and that any response to the complaint is also shared with the employee."
That expectation is not always met, however.
In the case of Paly girls' water-polo coach Cory Olcott, he said he was not shown any written complaints. Yet Paly received at least 22 letters from athletes and in some cases both parents (many anonymous) in fall 2008 containing strongly worded descriptions of Olcott's alleged treatment of players.
Most came from families who had banded together to discuss how best to raise their concerns, according to parents involved.
Olcott told the Weekly that, though he was not shown the complaints, he did discuss concerns raised with Hansen and Berkson, who was in charge of athletics at the time.
In spite of district policy, Hansen acknowledged he does not always show written complaints to his coaches.
"If every day I'm coming back and say, 'Look at this, look at what this person said about you' ... and you hear that all the time, why would you want to coach here?"
In one meeting with water-polo parents, Hansen promised he would administer anonymous feedback forms to the athletes at the end of the season, according to parent Joan Fiser (mother of player Silvia Maraboli and herself a teacher). To the dismay of some parents and players, this was not done, and became one impetus for parents appealing to higher-level school officials.
Investigations into coaching conduct at Paly and Gunn have ranged from informal to formal. Administrators say they often start by observing games and practices or talking casually with a few players or assistant coaches about how things are going.
"Observations are major," Hansen said.
Horpel agreed and said he is not noticed as he watches a game or practice, "like a fly on the wall." But others say it is hard for a school official to go unnoticed, making it difficult to observe problems first-hand.
A few investigations have occurred quickly. Likins suspended Gunn baseball coach Brian Kelly within days of complaints over his behavior during a team meeting. His permanent removal soon followed.
Other fact-finding has been more formal and deliberate. Horpel said he conducted a comprehensive evaluation of Gunn's football program early in 2009, sending every football player a call slip to come to his office and fill out anonymous feedback forms while there. Horpel also sent e-mails to parents asking for feedback. After the evaluation was completed, head coach Matt McGinn resigned.
Horpel also relied on student-feedback forms, as well as a meeting with concerned parents, in deciding to replace Gunn's varsity softball coach after the 2009 season, according to e-mails between Horpel and parents.
Whether formal or informal, investigations are only as valuable as they are objective. To that end, the school district assumes its administrators will be neutral, according to Bowers.
"The expectation is that any time you are doing an investigation you are doing it in as fair-handed and unbiased way possible," Bowers said. "The goal is to get at the specifics and the truth of it, not to determine what the outcome is."
Yet numerous Paly parents and players interviewed said they believe school neutrality is often missing when coach conduct is questioned.
"Earl is a staunch defender of his coaches," one Paly sports parent said.
"It's all about whether Earl likes the coach," another parent said.
"The administration made clear who they were believing," Fiser said, referring to the water-polo complaints.
Regarding Olcott, Hansen told the Weekly: "He's the head of the English department at Woodside Priory. My next-door neighbor, the mother, works at Woodside Priory. (Her) two daughters had him in class and they loved him. We had the same from several of the other girls who were on the team who were definitely in this corner, and also I know the ones who had issues. So again, we have to go through with my experience, and understanding and knowing some of the kids."
Hansen said some parents who complained about Olcott were engaged in a "witch hunt."
Hansen also backs girls' basketball coach Peters: "We have a young coach that cares deeply for his kids; there is no question in my mind. He did above-and-beyond then, as he is now. ... Sometimes a coach will be overzealous, but the genuine feelings that he has for his players comes out. ... I'm behind him 100 percent, because I know that's a fact.
"Hiring him was a piece of cake because I watched him for several years. He worked in our camps. I watched him dealing with kids of all ages, and they love him. He's like the Pied Piper."
Former Paly parent Renate Steiner agrees, based on her middle school daughter's several years of experience with Peters on youth teams and camps. "Scott is a major inspiration," she said, "He is so patient, so delightful. It boggles my mind how people can have problems with him."
Hansen questioned the motives of parents complaining about Peters' conduct in a February 2009 e-mail to Principal Jacqueline McEvoy: "This whole thing (new parent complaint about swearing) is about playing time and really nothing else. (The parent) now only wants to get his way. I think if Scott is that bad (the parent) should take his daughter off the team. ... It would be wrong to punish Scott for the few people that are very self-serving.
"Sports are a privilege and not a right. Maybe they need to understand this."
In fact, Hansen believes most complaints have little or nothing to do with a coach's behavior.
"As far as complaints in general from parents, I would say that 99 percent, if you cut away the fluff, are based on playing time," Hansen told the Weekly.
"Fluff," he said, means "using every possible excuse to crucify a coach or discredit a coach it's all based on playing time."
When Hansen investigated concerns about Olcott, he held meetings with the team co-captains, Liza Dernehl and Tara Murao, both Paly '09 grads.
Dernehl said that she and Murao would help Hansen "in sorting fact from fiction, trying to make it so there was less drama and more water polo."
She said Hansen would read parts of the various complaints and then ask them whether events happened as described.
She said Hansen once told them, "If this is true, then I need to do something about this, take this to the next level. But if it's not, then I don't want to do that, because it is not fair to Cory." She said Hansen trusted them to be honest and unbiased.
"Mr. Hansen had a good sense of what was going on," Dernehl told the Weekly. "He would say, 'I don't think this is true. Can you tell me if this is true?' ... He would say, 'This doesn't sound like Cory,' or 'I doubt this happened, but I need to check it with you. What do you think?'"
"I would say, 'This isn't really what Cory meant; he didn't mean it that way,'" Dernehl said.
Murao said Hansen seemed highly skeptical of the allegations. (Hansen declined to comment on the team captains' descriptions of these meetings.)
Dernehl said those complaining "wouldn't make things up, but would misinterpret what would happen and make it sound really bad." While sympathetic to teammates who had problems with Olcott, she described the allegations as "blown out of proportion," an opinion shared by other players and parents interviewed by the Weekly.
Murao said that letters describing Olcott as "abusive" angered her.
"'Abusive' is a strong word," Murao said.
"At that point I had to stand up for Cory. That was hard because I did have problems with him. In some ways, the complaining girls were right, but the way they were going about it was wrong. They should have come instead to the captains," Murao said.
When the season ended, Olcott handed out his own feedback forms and asked the girls to fill them out while he stayed with them. Olcott told the Weekly these forms were "just for me" he did not provide copies to the school until later asked during the investigation of complaints. He said the school has its own forms and that he expected administrators to do their own process.
"I think they want to do that independently so it can be as objective as they can make it," he said.
Many girls said they were upset by Olcott's involvement in the feedback process; they had expected an administrator would survey the team according to Hansen's promises to parents. Some girls said it affected what they wrote.
Hansen told the Weekly he called a water-polo team meeting in his office to do feedback forms but no one showed up, for reasons he could not explain and did not pursue.
Superintendent Skelly would not comment directly about Hansen's handling of complaints. He acknowledged shortcomings within the district.
"There is clearly room for improvement to leave people with confidence that complaints will be addressed in a fair and even-handed manner," Skelly said.
Taking it to the top
After witnessing what they considered an angry display by coach Peters at a Los Gatos girls' basketball game in January 2009, a group of parents decided to take their mounting concerns up the administrative ladder to Principal McEvoy.
A total of 10-12 parents attended the meeting with McEvoy, representing 7-8 players. Two were supportive of Peters; others had either mixed views or strong concerns, according to several who were present. (This was the same meeting described earlier by player Taylor Lovely, which she said resulted in improvements.)
At the meeting, which included Hansen and Berkson, McEvoy invited concerned parents to put the specifics of complaints in writing. While some parents felt the meeting cleared the air and promised to set in motion actions that would lead to improvements, Cheryl and Dave Atkinson took the next step suggested and put their concerns in writing.
"She told us, 'I can't do anything without hard evidence,'" Dave Atkinson said.
The Atkinsons' complaint alleged that "Scott's pattern of language, communications, and behavior toward Kirsten (Atkinson) and her teammates over our two-year experience with him shows a complete imbalance of negative and demeaning messages whether yelled, screamed, or conveyed in a one-on-one discussion." They cited examples, including use of the f-word.
In appealing to McEvoy, the Atkinsons said they hoped she would conduct an independent investigation into what they viewed as a serious, longstanding and urgent matter.
Instead, McEvoy relied on information from Hansen in preparing her response to the Atkinsons.
In a three-page letter, McEvoy said that Hansen had talked and met individually with a "majority" of the 12 girls on the team. Based on what Hansen told McEvoy about those conversations, she concluded that while there were some concerns "about Coach Peters' communication skills," the majority of the team did not support the Atkinsons' assertions about the extent of the coach's negative behavior and its effects.
The Weekly contacted 11 of the 12 players and only one recalled talking to Hansen during the season about Peters' coaching. That player said she told Hansen about problems she was having with Peters, which she declined to describe for the Weekly.
Hansen encouraged her to "not use parents as a channel for complaining," and told her "Scott was a good coach and a good guy," she said.
Hansen said her problems were "no big deal," that she should focus instead on the game, she said. "Just focus on the positive. Agree to disagree." She said that made sense to her. She also said she likes and supports Peters despite past problems.
Hansen declined to comment about that conversation but acknowledged that he did not have any "formal meetings" with players. "I didn't sit down with them," he said, contrary to what McEvoy's letter reported.
McEvoy, who expressed surprise when informed by the Weekly of Hansen's comment, later clarified that what Hansen did was to have "informal conversations" with a majority of the girls on the team about practices, the climate on the team and how things were going in general. He did not ask about coach conduct directly, she said. His questions went to the "mood of the team," she said.
McEvoy said she was satisfied with the information Hansen gave her and that the findings ended up being supported by feedback forms administered by Hansen at the end of the season. She said the forms showed a majority of the team had a positive experience.
The Atkinsons, however, point to the school administration's handling of their complaint as an example of a system that lacks neutrality, credibility and sufficient focus on the coach's conduct.
In their final meeting, McEvoy asked the Atkinsons why their daughter didn't quit the team. "'Why are you putting your daughter through this?' was her attitude," Dave Atkinson said. "It's McEvoy's job to make sure this is an environment that is supportive of kids."
Sending complaints back down the line for investigation can be problematic, according to Jeff Lamb, longtime Milpitas High School athletic director and past president of the California State Athletic Directors Association. If an investigation is called for at his school, the principal will usually bring kids in, he said.
Neutrality is important and the further removed the investigator the better, he said. While every school is different, he said, "In my experience, principals have been active in investigations."
During the investigation of the Atkinson complaint, several parents voiced support for Peters. One e-mailed school officials: "I have attended all of the games for this season (except for Los Gatos) and have never seen Scott be out of line with the girls. What I have witnessed is an inordinate amount of complaining by the players amongst each other, toward each other, and about the coach, and a lack of respect by the players and parents towards the coach."
Hansen said he has had no complaints about Peters' conduct in the 2010 season.
Peters declined requests for an interview. In an e-mail, he wrote: "I take player and parent concerns seriously and have had an open-door policy to meet with any player or parent since I began coaching at Palo Alto High School."
A complicated process
As with the controversy surrounding Peters, the investigation into Olcott's performance percolated up past Hansen to Paly administrators and even to the district level.
In a February 2009 letter to Superintendent Skelly, parent Joan Fiser enclosed several other complaint letters, all anonymous but with the authors' permission, she said.
Fiser said she received no response from Skelly, nor from anyone on his behalf. It turns out Bowers, who received the packet, had referred it back to Paly officials.
"It became evident that the school site had not adequately responded, so it was agreed that it would go back to the site for further action. This should have been documented in a letter (to Fiser), which I forgot to do. Eventually the site did respond in writing <0x0214> the May 22 letter from Berkson," he explained.
The fact that no response was received to Fiser's letter to Skelly until several months later fueled parent fears and concerns that they were not being taken seriously at any level.
"I can understand the frustration that it's back to where it started, but maybe that's because where it started could have done a better job," Skelly said.
Meanwhile, in February and March 2009, Berkson interviewed most but not all water-polo team members. Several players reported statements from Berkson that suggest a lack of neutrality.
One player who supported Olcott said Berkson agreed with her that some allegations critical of Olcott were "ridiculous."
Two others critical of Olcott said Berkson told them in effect: "In your life you run into people that are difficult. You need to learn how to deal with it." One of the players said Berkson also told her, "What Cory did was not a big deal. It's standard practice for many coaches."
"By no means did I try to shape anyone's thinking," Berkson wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly.
"I may have spoken to them in general terms that, in life, you are going to have to work with people that you don't exactly like but still need to work with, whether it's a coach or a boss," he said.
Berkson met with Olcott to discuss the issues raised. In a memo provided to the Weekly by the district, Olcott refers to "several incidents" in the feedback forms he had distributed (which he later provided to Berkson) that "were not unfair in their criticism."
In the memo Olcott takes responsibility for these incidents contributing to the team's problems.
But "the impetus came mostly from parents with unrealistic expectations" about their daughters' playing time, he wrote. "To advance its own agenda, a small contingent (of parents) worked actively to undermine the work of players, coaches and other parents to build a cohesive group. Secret, exclusive meetings, derisive comments at games, and other divisive behavior placed the players in a difficult position and hampered the growth of the team."
Several players and parents interviewed by the Weekly agreed with Olcott's assessment that playing time contributed significantly to the complaints about his conduct; those critical of Olcott adamantly deny this was their motive.
Team divisions along playing-time lines are common when parents and students debate a coach's methods, according to national sports expert Richard Lapchick, affiliated with Positive Coaching Alliance.
"This confuses the issues a bit. The suspicion is that the parents and athletes are bitter about playing time. This is a pattern seen over and over with problematic coaches," Lapchick told the Weekly in an interview.
Berkson's report to Fiser cited a "polarity" of viewpoints, as well as correlation between lack of playing time and dissatisfaction with Olcott. The report also outlined Olcott's tasks for improvement: Speak to the team as a whole about mistakes; eliminate sarcasm and profanity; and share concerns about a player only with that player and not others, such as team captains.
After receiving the report, Fiser questioned the findings in an e-mail. She was especially critical of the emphasis given to examining the motivations of the players with concerns about coach conduct. Of the report's eight comments listed in support of Cory, six of them were aimed to discredit complaining players, she said.
Fiser met one more time with Berkson and Bowers. They told her at the end of the meeting that the decision had been made to retain Olcott.
"I was handled," Fiser said. "They discounted everything I said. They really wanted to see me as the over-anxious parent protective of her daughter."
Skelly commented: "The question is, 'Did we make the right call there, should we have let this coach go or should we have kept him?' The school made the decision to keep him. The kids (this year) had a quality experience."
Signs of improvement
The most visible coaching-conduct controversies examined in this series do not exist in isolation. Numerous less-visible or less-controversial incidents occur and are either quietly resolved or are not pressed by parents or their kids. Some remain unresolved, and new complaints have been brought to the Weekly's attention since Part 1 appeared last week.
By all accounts, however, the school year just ending has seen fewer serious problems than in the prior years, and the Paly girls' water-polo and basketball teams finished their seasons without the intense controversy of previous years.
Whether the change this year is a result of increased monitoring and accountability, a change in team dynamics, or evolution of coaching styles and maturity or all three parents and players on both teams report noticeably improved behavior by their coaches.
Changes are also occurring at the district level.
In January 2010, the district revived its long-fallow Athletic Committee, consisting of top-level district personnel and the principals, assistant principals and athletic directors from both Paly and Gunn. Now led by Assistant Superintendent Linda Common, the group meets monthly to review athletic policies, address issues around athletics and make sure everyone's on the same page in terms of expectations.
The restart of regular meetings after several years of dormancy coincided with the Weekly's investigation into coaching behavior and supervision.
The committee's work is timely.
As shown in the experiences of a number of teams in recent years, school standards for coaching conduct and what constitutes a violation of those standards are not clearly communicated to sports participants in Palo Alto's high schools.
Lacking clarity and reliable, comfortable channels of communication among athletes, parents and school administrators, coach-conduct problems often end up creating confusion, accountability issues, mistrust and divisiveness within and around a team.
Compounding those challenges is a lack of assumed goodwill among participants in many instances, especially at Paly. When disputes about coach conduct arise, unless the complaints are brought by the team's starters, the focus is often diverted from the questioned conduct to accusations about parent and player motivations. Also, parents and players can at times be quick to demand a coach's removal, pressing the coach and administrators into a defensive rather than problem-solving mode. In these cases, tensions are magnified, making effective solutions more difficult.
Although senior district and school administrators can adopt and direct new policies to help solve the problems identified in this story, it is the two athletic directors who are on the front lines of the athletic program. (See sidebar: "Who is overseeing ...?")
Their jobs which include coaching their own teams (football for Paly's Hansen and wrestling for Gunn's Horpel) and teaching P.E. are enormous and many say way beyond what is fair and reasonable given the high expectations of the community. In addition to running the day-to-day operations of their programs, they are expected to recruit, mentor and evaluate coaches for each of the 96 varsity and junior varsity teams in 17 sports; handle player and parent questions, concerns and complaints; and be an evangelist for a positive sports philosophy that not all parents endorse.
"The (athletic director) is a tough job, being in charge of supervising lots of coaches," Principal McEvoy said. "You're the one out there providing support to all the coaches. Private schools have full-time ADs."
Challenges aside, the vast majority of coaches in Palo Alto's public high schools deserve recognition and gratitude for their contributions and dedication to youth development, parents, players and officials agree.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a better top-to-bottom coaching staff in any school around," Skelly said.
Complaints "are the exceptions not the rule in terms of our coaches."
Skelly believes that with current increased attention to athletic policies and practices, an educationally rich, positive sports experience for all Paly and Gunn students is more certain for the future.
"If you were to look at our coaches right now, I think (the ones with problems) are either not here or they're doing a much better job so I have confidence in our ability to get our arms around this issue and deal with it. I think we're already doing it," he told the Weekly.
"I think we're making very good progress."