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A confusing complaint process

Players, parents confront a confusing puzzle when they seek to make a complaint about a coach's behavior

Editor's Note: This article, which you can read by scrolling down this page , was part of an investigative two-part series on high school coaching in Palo Alto published in the Palo Alto Weekly on May 14, 2010 and May 21, 2010. Additional articles appeared only online.

Here is a complete list of all stories with links to them:

Out of bounds? Part 1: In the first half of this special report, published May 14, the Weekly described five recent coaching controversies at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and explored attributes and examples of positive coaching.

Out of bounds? Part 2: In the second half of this special report, published May 21, the Weekly examines how specific complaints were made and handled by school administrators.

Editorial: Reforming Palo Alto's high school sports

A confusing complaint process: An article about the confusing administrative maze facing athletes and parents when they seek to raise issues about a coach's behavior.

Tips for high school sports parents: Advice to parents of sports-team members from the founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Who oversees high school athletics?: Athletic directors have big jobs managing teams and coaches, with little time and no extra pay.

Sports Boosters help fund athletics: How Palo Alto parent groups fund major athletic projects and team expenses.

Documents and complaints: Complaints submitted by parents, letters in support of coaches, e-mail exchanges with officials and responses of administrators related to baseball controversies at Paly and Gunn, softball at Gunn and girls' basketball and water polo at Paly.

The psychology and effects of bad coaching: Uncontrolled emotions combined with old-school coaching habits can leave lifelong scars

What makes a good coach good? Complex mix of factors results in outstanding coaching, player experience, experts say

Sports and coaches at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools: A comprehensive list of the sports offered at the two schools, plus statistics on the number of athletes and types of coaches who work or volunteer in the athletics programs.

The job of coaching: a review of the working conditions high-school coaches face. For many, the work means long hours, low pay, high expectations and shifting personnel.

Club sports add challenges to school athletics: how the emergence of private club sports in the past 20 years has created a pool of experienced coaches in high-school athletics -- but also has raised concerns about conflicts of interest and favoritism when a club coach has club players on a school team.

Positive Coaching Alliance seeks to eliminate 'poisonous negativity' in youth sports: A national program, based in Mountain View, aims to transform youth sports so sports can transform youth.

A confusing complaint process: Players, parents confront a confusing puzzle when they seek to make a complaint about a coach's behavior

Palo Alto High parents Paul and Susan Burk decided to speak up after their son Steven quit the baseball team mid-season in spring 2009 due to difficulties with coach Donny Kadokawa. They thought the school might benefit from their feedback.

"Our biggest issue was the need for higher standards for coach behavior," Paul Burk said.

They met with Athletic Director Earl Hansen and Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson and suggested that Kadokawa should be disciplined for, in their view, violating school standards multiple times. Two days later, Susan Burk called Berkson to follow up. He told her then, for the first time, that if they wanted action, they needed to file a formal complaint. This requirement wasn't mentioned in Paly's athletic handbook or during the meeting, Susan Burk said.

"It was clearly a stall tactic," she said.

Welcome to the maze that greets parents trying to figure out how to make a complaint about a coach's conduct. At Paly, for example, parents see one version of complaint procedures in the athletic handbook, hear another version announced at the parents' pre-season sports meeting, and find another version in the school (not athletic) handbook.

The school handbook version states the district's Board Policy on parent complaints about employees generally, along with the staff-written "Administrative Procedure to the Board Policy." The Board Policy's language is difficult to understand and not entirely consistent with the terms of the administrative procedure. It is also not clear to the uninitiated whether it applies to coaches (it does, according to Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers).

For parents trying to follow the correct procedure, it is often not evident whom they should see first (or next), how best to make the approach, whether a complaint should be in writing, whether their written complaint will be shown to a coach, whether and when to expect a written response, whether that written response will be shared with the coach, and what happens if they want, as some do, to remain anonymous.

Bowers explained in an e-mail to the Weekly that an official complaint must be addressed to the principal. Identified as Step 3 in the Administrative Procedure to the Board Policy, the letter "needs to reference the outcome of the informal level meetings (Step 1 is with the employee, and Step 2 is with the employee's supervisor).

"I would expect the principal or (assistant principal) to communicate with the parent on the process," Bowers wrote.

No reference is made in the Paly athletic handbook's outline of conflict resolution steps to written complaints, formal or informal [weblink. Step 3 in the Paly athletic handbook, for example, is contacting the Athletic Director (Step 1 is the athlete contacting the coach, and Step 2 is the parent contacting the coach).

The lack of procedural clarity can compound frustrations already arising from the source of the complaint, as the Burks and others have attested. It can also lead to delays and missteps. What a parent thinks is a complaint may not be viewed as a complaint, or it may not be classified a "formal complaint," which may affect how administrators respond.

In some cases, school officials don't follow what appear to be required steps in the process, including timely written responses to written concerns or sharing written complaints and their responses with coaches.

The Burks took Berkson's suggestion and wrote a "formal" letter of complaint addressed to Principal Jacqueline McEvoy and Bowers. Their letter describes Kadokawa's coaching as including "sarcastic, demeaning, negative, disrespectful, insulting, unprofessional" behavior. The letter's specifics include a heated exchange between Steven and Kadokawa during a game with Menlo-Atherton, after which Kadokawa told Paul Burk, "If it wasn't for all the help you give our team I would smack you right now where you stand."

The Burks then met with McEvoy, who said the school would look into it and also send administrators to the games to monitor Kadokawa's behavior.

The Burks received a written response from McEvoy 10 days later. In her letter, she expressed particular concern about the M-A game incidents "because of their confrontational nature." She stated that Kadokawa denied making any threatening statements to Paul Burk but that he "did share with me that he expressed to you that he thought you were not hard enough on Steven and that if Steven were his son, he would physically discipline him." McEvoy characterized this as "totally inappropriate and unacceptable."

Paul Burk does not recall Kadokawa making statements about physical discipline of his son. "I would have remembered that," he said. Paul Burk confirmed to the Weekly, however, his clear recollection of Kadokawa's statement directed at him (Paul), as described in his complaint letter to McEvoy.

Kadokawa declined to comment on any of the allegations of the Burk complaint, the McEvoy response (which he said he had not received from the school but which the Weekly provided him), or the substance of other similar concerns about his conduct raised by several other parents and players during Weekly interviews.

Despite her concerns, McEvoy concluded that the coach's actions do not "warrant his removal at this time." She said "in dealing with these types of complaints, it can be somewhat problematic to separate out issues of personal coaching style vs. violations of our standards and policies. The level of evidence necessary to warrant disciplinary action against any employee is high."

The high level of evidence often cited as required for an at-will employee, along with the various hoops necessary to raise an issue and get a response, adds to parents' confusion and frustration.

"This process is broken," one Paly girls' basketball parent, who requested anonymity, said. "We want to bring up an issue and the first thing the principal says is that the employee has rights. What about our daughters' rights? Don't they have rights?"

In discussing coaching complaints, the Weekly found that Paly school officials refer to "due process rights," "conclusive evidence needed" and other legal-sounding phrases that are not defined or mentioned in the various written guidelines about complaint procedures. This raises questions about what level of evidence is necessary to warrant disciplinary action -- which could range from verbal reprimand to temporary suspension to outright removal.

By contrast, when athletes err, justice has been swift. Steven Burk used the f-word during the M-A game dispute over a pitching call ("are you f-ing kidding me?" Steven challenged his coach) and was immediately pulled from the game. He was to be suspended for two additional games. Steven took responsibility and apologized for his error; his parents agreed that he had made a mistake and did not dispute the consequences.

But the Burks felt Kadokawa also should be held accountable for what they described as more serious conduct breaches, including Kadokawa's own swearing (including the f-word) and angry outbursts, which they and other parents and players had witnessed. They felt a double standard was being applied, to the athletes' disadvantage.

In her letter, McEvoy appeared to acknowledge that the adult needs to be held to a higher standard: "[Although Steven has taken responsibility for his behavior, I believe that, as the adult in the situation the coach carries the heavier burden for defusing what became unnecessarily confrontational." She also outlined issues to be addressed with Kadokawa including profanity and derision; confrontational behavior; condoning or promoting corporal punishment; statements that could be interpreted as a threat to a student or parent; speaking negatively to others about the students; and the need for counseling with Hansen "to ensure he understands the line between creating a disciplined team through positive coaching, and disciplining the team negatively for their mistakes."

Yet, Kadokawa told the Weekly that none of these issues were discussed with him. He said no one discussed positive coaching with him, no one discussed the school's response to the Burk complaint with him, and no one provided him with a copy of it, despite numerous requests he said he made to Hansen and McEvoy for a copy.

Failure to provide Kadokawa with a copy is a violation of the Board Policy, which requires a written complaint be shared with the employee along with any response to that complaint, according to Bowers.

Paly girls' water-polo coach Cory Olcott similarly said the school did not show him any of the written complaints regarding his conduct, nor the school's written response to those complaints, although the subjects covered were discussed with him.

The complaint process left the Burks, like other parents trying to address coaching issues, feeling frustrated and dissatisfied. They had gone to a lot of trouble for a meager result that discounted their experiences and appeared to create unfair barriers to action, they said. In their view, a classroom teacher would go on leave immediately for the type of conduct they said they witnessed with Kadokawa.

The school instead waited until the end of the season and then told Kadokawa he would not be returning to Paly.

Meanwhile Kadokawa's many supporters rallied the administration in support of the coach. The district provided the Weekly with 10 letters (with names concealed) describing Kadokawa's strengths and potential to build a successful team at Paly. "An exceptional baseball coach," "the right man for the job" and "one of the finest baseball coaches in the area," were among the letters' accolades. Some letters acknowledged Kadokawa's shortcomings but argued that he "could build a program that would be the envy" of other high schools if given the chance.

One letter described attempts by athletes to meet with McEvoy and alleged that the administration made no reply to the athletes or the parents, which the Weekly heard independently from parents.

Some letters faulted the administration for failing to support and guide Kadokawa and other baseball coaches preceding him.

"Where is the demonstration that Mr. Hansen is invested in the success of Donny as head coach, or in a top-notch baseball program at Paly?" one letter writer asked.

Another letter writer claimed Hansen has "demonstrated zero investment in baseball" and said the result has been "a program that swirls with controversy, rumor and tumult."

Another area of confusion is the handling of anonymous written complaints, which are not addressed by any version of the complaint procedures. Yet they come up, as for example in the case of Paly girls' water polo, when a large number of letters were sent to Hansen, some of which continued up the chain to Superintendent Kevin Skelly.

Hansen said he does not give anonymous letters any credence. Gunn Assistant Principal and former Athletic Director Tom Jacoubowsky makes a different call: "I know a lot of (athletic directors) will never discuss with coaches an anonymous complaint. I would say a lot of times I have discussed it with a coach. ... I think it's important for coaches to understand what's out there and what the perception is. ... We prefer to get to things as quickly as possible here to avoid bigger issues down the line."

Skelly said the school district is looking at complaint procedures as part of its general policy review and that it is "pushing something forward" that will receive Bowers' attention this summer.

"The bottom line is that we should be responsive to people who have issues. It shouldn't be: 'Go fill out the form.' It should be, 'OK, what's the issue? Let's help you; let's work together so your kid has a quality experience.'"

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Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 21, 2010 at 9:31 am

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