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Originally published Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 9:35 PM

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How two schools dealt quickly with coaches accused of sexual harassment

Lake Washington and Kent-Meridian high schools suspended coaches within hours of accusations. Charges were filed in both cases.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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On March 3, just after midnight, a female student at Lake Washington High School sent out an email.

In the subject line it read, "The Truth About What Happened With Barry."

The email, which was included in documents from an investigation authorized by the school district and obtained by The Seattle Times, was a chance for the student to explain, in her own words, why she decided to tell a school counselor she believed she had been sexually harassed by the school's boys basketball coach, Barry Johnson.

"I want to preface this by saying that I would NEVER make false accusations of any kind toward anybody for any reason, and certainly not accusations of this magnitude," wrote the student, whose name is not being released by school or law-enforcement officials. "Things like this could potentially ruin someone's career. Their life. And I do truly feel awful for all the people out there who have been falsely accused and have suffered for it.

"I also want to say that if this had been a situation in which I felt I could have just said 'stop,' then I would have just said 'stop.' But, after three months, countless hints that it was not OK, several outbursts exclaiming that it was not OK, and no change in behavior, I kind of came to the conclusion that 'stop' just wasn't going to cut it."

Months earlier, on Dec. 13, 2011, the student asked to be excused from class to alert a counselor that she believed she had been sexually harassed by Johnson. The counselor told Lake Washington associate principal Prato Barone who, after speaking with the student, placed the 38-year-old coach on administrative leave.

"Coming forward takes a lot of courage for a young lady like that," Barone said. "You have something that needs to be thoroughly investigated."

A lengthy investigation followed. Johnson, who resigned March 13, was charged April 3 with communicating with a minor for immoral purposes — a gross misdemeanor. His arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday.

Earlier in the school year, Kent-Meridian track coach Ernest "Ernie" Ammons, 36, was charged with the same offense after being accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to a 16-year-old student.

In both cases, the school districts acted swiftly. The coaches were placed on leave the same day the complaints were reported. The cases show that despite high-profile cases that could be viewed as procedural failures, such as the case at Penn State involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky, the system can be effective when alleged abuse occurs.

Barone and Chris Loftis, the Kent School District's chief of communications, said the rapid response by both school districts is a testament to the training administrators receive and a focus on keeping students safe.

"We acted quickly," Loftis said. "We put the student's safety as our No. 1 focus, but we've also got to respect the rights of the accused. It's kind of a fine line. You have to walk a tightrope. But the bottom line is, you're always going to err on the side of the student's safety."

Blurred boundary

There is a section of Johnson's last performance evaluation under "student relations" that reads, "He could benefit from maintaining and establishing (a) less cordial boundary in adult-student relationships." The evaluation was part of the investigation documents.

Johnson, who also worked as an instructional assistant at Lake Washington, was well-liked on campus. However, on several occasions, this female student felt the coach violated a professional boundary.

According to the investigation, it started with a hug in September, early in the 2011-12 school year, after another student committed suicide. In November, the student said Johnson began asking her in class about her sex life.

On a separate occasion, while talking about the child-abuse scandal at Penn State, the investigation report states Johnson was accused of asking a male student if he was going to "Sandusky" another male student.

In December, the investigation revealed the coach sent a Facebook friend request to the female student and, during a conversation on the social networking site, asked for her phone number.

The student reported Johnson made more unwelcomed verbal comments while she was eating lunch Dec. 13. The verbal exchange continued into the classroom, prompting the student to get excused from class so she could explain the situation to a counselor.

Johnson, who did not return a phone call from The Seattle Times, disputed the allegations in his letter of resignation.

"The allegations that lead (sic) to me being placed on administrative leave were made within twenty four hours of me asking a young person about their use of drugs," Johnson wrote. "That same young person admitted to me that they were using Animal Tranquilizers amongst (sic) other drugs. I was hoping to get that young person help. I realize that the way in which this was done could have been different. Outside of electronic communication, the allegations that were made about me are outrageous, unfounded and unsubstantiated."

Ammons, who had a hearing Thursday, pleaded not guilty Dec. 22. However, court documents show the coach told Kent-Meridian principal Dr. Wade Barringer he traded sexually explicit text messages with a student over several months.

During the investigation, phone records revealed 46 incoming and outgoing calls between Ammons and the student.

With the emergence of text messaging and social media, it has become easier for teachers and coaches to communicate with students once the school day ends.

However, both Barone and Loftis stressed the importance of maintaining professional boundaries with students.

"There are boundary erosion issues that we have to deal with," Loftis said. "A lot of that has to do with technology and the instant communication that you have with students or the capacity for instant communication. It wasn't that long ago that the bell rang at the end of the day and the teacher and student wouldn't have any contact at all until the following morning. Now there's just a whole new arena of communication capacity and, like any other capacity, sometimes it's going to be abused."

A swift response

When a complaint is reported, administrators focus on the safety of the student. They are trained to act quickly, setting in motion a process with a goal of sorting the facts, while respecting the rights of both the teacher/coach and student.

"You don't do anyone any favors by moving slowly in this," Loftis said. "Now, you have to move cautiously. You have to move thoughtfully. But you have to move. That's what we did, and that's what we'll continue to do. Student safety is our priority."

No matter how well-liked the teacher or coach, administrators are directed to focus on the specifics of the complaint.

"More than anything, you want to get it right," Barone said. "I knew Barry very well and I liked Barry. He's well-liked around our school. Great guy. Great charisma. But you can't let that get in the way of what you're supposed to do when you're faced with these situations. You can't say, 'He's been great for our program and great for our kids, people love him.' You can't let that cloud your judgment.

"I think people get in trouble when they want to clear a person or understand what's going on. It was better for me to say, 'Here are the facts that I've got' and now turn it over to my district personnel and say, 'Gather the facts on this and get this right.' "

It is not easy for a student to step forward. At Kent-Meridian, it took a friend from another school to report what was going on. But at Lake Washington, in addition to voicing her complaint, the student felt compelled to explain herself through an email.

While it is not clear who received the email, the student wrote that it was directed at people who "asked about it," others who "kind of knew what's going on" and boys basketball players who she "wanted to apologize to."

"Every moment, every instant, of every day that this happened is forever seared into my mind," she wrote. "I can't erase it. I can't pretend it didn't happen. I can't pretend that, after awhile, I wasn't beginning to become ... frightened of him. Frightened that maybe it would become more than comments, talk and invading questions. And he knew it. And he didn't stop. Or couldn't stop. I don't know.

"And what's worse is feeling like everyone's kind of ... pointing the finger at me. Blaming me. And, I promise I don't need to be blamed, because I feel bad enough. I couldn't explain why I feel so guilty and terrible and afraid, but I do."

Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or mkelley@seattletimes.com

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