Q & A · A live session with the reporters
Wednesday, December 17, 2003 - Noon to 1 p.m.
Seattle Times reporters Christine Willmsen and Maureen O'Hagan answered your questions in a one-hour discussion about the series.
What prompted the investigation? Irma Gonzalez, Lynnwood
Maureen O'Hagan: About a year ago, basketball coach Tony Giles was charged with molesting one of his players and threatening her chances of a scholarship if she wouldn't have sex with him. Parents later told me that those rumors had been around for years. That story sent us looking for answers: How big is this problem? Why would girls cooperate with him? And why would parents let their daughters play for a coach with such a reputation? The answers to those questions turned into this series.
Your article brought up memories for me about an improper relationship a teacher initiated with me more than 20 years ago in another state. How would I go about reporting this person now? I want to make sure this person gets punished even though it was a long time ago. Cynthia, Seattle
M.O.: You can call or write your old school district to make the report. Even though it's 20 years old, the district should still forward the complaint to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. If he's still teaching, OSPI still has jurisdiction to conduct an investigation, although it will be more difficult because so much time has passed.
Who prevented the Kohl-Welles bill from coming to a vote? Lynnwood
M.O.: Kohl-Welles said that the Republican-controlled legislature was slow in letting her bill come to the floor. She is a Democrat. They basically ran out of time, she said.
How many cases did you find where it was a female coach preying on her female players? Jim Howe, Des Moines,
M. O.: We found only a few cases of this.
I am curious to know, out of the 159 cases you found, how many of them were Caucasian and how many were not? Every single coach you mentioned appeared to be the same age range and the same race. Irma Gonzalez, Seattle
Christine Willmsen: Irma, we found coaches of all ages and races. Some of the coaches were young and others were near retirement. However, the race of the coach wasn't always available.
If there have been any boy victims, what were the steps taken compared to the girl victims? Or was there no difference? Denise Mitchell, Lynnwood
C.W.: The vast majority of coaches were men and the victims were girls. Since there were only a few cases of boy victims, it was impossible to compare how and if they were handled differently.
Please tell me that you're going to do some sort of follow-up on some of the thousands of coaches in this state that dedicate their lives to the education of student/athletes?
I realize it's not as hot a news topic as the relatively few who molest kids, but every time I feel exhausted from the demands of my past season and discouraged that I can't afford health insurance, it seems there's an article or story like yours to make things worse. Most of us coaches love what we do, but there's enough to discourage us from continuing without you contributing to it. Please present the other side of the story, even if it isn't "newsworthy." Mindy Leffler
C.W.: Mindy, I agree, coaches are dedicated to our youth. We value their contribution to our teenagers and young boys and girls. We print stories about great coaches in our sports pages. We also did state in the series on Sunday that most coaches are the role models for our youth and have never crossed the line.
The Times focused on teachers that coach. Non-teachers that coach at schools fall into a gray area and are more difficult to get at for a variety of reasons. I don't recall any discussion of this issue. Comments? James Cameron, Seattle
M.O.: We discussed this issue, but perhaps not as extensively as we did the issue of teachers who coach. But you're right, non-teaching coaches present a much more difficult issue. They don't hold teaching certificates, so OSPI has no jurisdiction. There is no union, so they're easier to fire if there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. But there is no organization that tracks these folks. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association said, in our third-day story, that they would consider acting as a sort of registry where schools could report misconduct by non-teaching coaches.
Will you be following up on this story to see what happens both regarding the specific coaches/schools mentioned as well as overall laws/policies? I'd like to know what happens as a result of your articles. Heather, Marysville
C.W.: Yes, we will write follow up stories regarding specific coaches and schools, and more importantly we will make sure we report on any changes throughout the state that will improve the safety of children and fix the system.
Of the thousands upon thousands of coaches this state has had over the years, you have found 159 that had done something wrong. And when you did find these 159, you made a big production out of it with this series. How is this not just another case of the media putting undue stress and paranoia into the minds of parents through sensationalized stories about isolated (159 out of 5,000) instances? C.R.
M.O.: We found 159, but this is a fraction of the cases. We said in the story that these are an unscrupulous minority of coaches that do break the rules. But when the system breaks like this and some of these coaches aren't punished, then the public needs to know this so it doesn't happen again. Shedding sunlight on this problem can only improve the safety of all children. If parents read our entire series carefully, we believe they won't be overly alarmed. This is an important public issue.
How is it that school districts, such as Bellevue, can allow their teachers to come purge their files and take out any documentation of wrong doing? Chad Lee, Ellensburg
C.W..: According to the local union contract between teachers and Bellevue School District, the teachers can review their personnel files and ask that information, including reprimands or warnings, be removed. In the end, the district must approve of the removal of records.
You mentioned that SPI had a staff of 4.5 people and dealt with 22 cases last year. Is that correct? If so then each full time staff works 4 to 5 cases per year. Clyde McBrayer, Olympia
M.O.: That office investigates all kinds of complaints, including sexual misconduct complaints. The numbers we provided only reflected the sexual misconduct complaints that were closed in any given year.
I'd like to know how your editors felt about the thousands of dollars they invested in court costs so you both could get the materials you needed. Many smaller newspapers are unable to afford these costs. Do you see this series affecting the way the OSPI and local districts hand over records--even to smaller papers? Lisa Leitz, Royal City, Wash.
C.W.: The Seattle Times hopes our fight in court makes it easier for smaller papers and even parents to get information such as personnel files of coaches more quickly. We fought for months to get the records. We hope this changes how schools deal with requests for records and that they are more responsive to the public's requests.
Did you make attempts to contact all of the "victims"? Did you come across any instances of allegations made by a student that were later proven false? Rick, Federal Way
C.W.: Out of the couple of hundred cases of coaches with misconduct we investigated, we only found 2 or 3 that were later proven false. It's a rare occurrence.
A friend of mine was sexually assaulted by her teacher who was also her coach. I noticed that his name was not listed. Did districts not give you all the names of the teacher/coaches? Lynden, Kenmore
M.O.: We requested misconduct records from the state superintendent, and 10 of the largest school districts. If your friend's complaint didn't involve one of those districts, or wasn't reported to the state superintendent which isn't unusual we wouldn't have learned of it. We'd love to hear from you or your friend to learn more about her case.
How likely do you think it is that this series will create real change in practice with OSPI and at the school district level? I know that the series addresses this somewhat, but what do you think are the one or two most important changes that could/should be made? Mark, Auburn
M.O.: The issue of employment reference checks for school coaches is one of most important issues that could be addressed. Now, schools often don't ask previous employers about sexual misconduct allegations, and some schools make agreements with accused teachers to keep them secret. Changing these practices would be a good start.
Is there any talk of putting together a small piece aimed at the athletes themselves, that could be handed out at schools perhaps that provides them information about proper vs. improper coaching behavior as well as contact information if they have questions. Thank you. Mary, Seattle
C.W.: The solutions stories highlight the fact that more needs to be done to educate athletes. The awareness of abuse and harassment is limited in the sports arena. People have called for schools develop programs to inform and educate athletes about this important issue. There are several Web sites listed on the solutions page that parents and girls can turn to for more information.
Did you ever talk to a student/player that was preyed on years after the abuse to see how much it effects them especially when they tell the district and no action is taken? Rae Ann, Bothell
M.O.: Today's story answers some of those questions. The women we spoke with for that story had been abused as many as 10 years earlier, and it still affects them. We interviewed other victims who still feel damaged, even 20 or 30 years later. We talked to some young women who say they felt like the school district made them out to be the bad guys. They say that, as well as the abuse, has had a great affect on them.
I read a very similar article in the Seattle P-I not too long ago that chronicled some of the same coaches that you did. Did they beat you to the punch, or was your version started beforehand? Carla, Tukwila
C.W.: We started our investigation more than one year ago; we were not beaten to the punch. The Times fought in the courts and traveled the state doing in-depth reporting. We found 159 cases and flaws in the system that allows misconduct to continue. The P-I focused on three coaches and did a narrower story, in our opinion.
Isn't it Washington state law that persons working with the vulnerable, to include working with seniors and children, be required to report any suspected abuse or known abuse to the WA State Abuse Hotline? Why is the reporting requirement different with employees who work with public schools than it is with social service agency employees? Eliticia, Sunnyside, Wash.
M.O.: There is a mandatory reporting law for educators. However, in our reporting, we learned that some schools treat allegations of misconduct by teachers differently than they do allegations of misconduct by people outside of the school. For instance, school districts said that if a child says she's being abused at home, they call CPS or police immediately. However, if the child says she's being abused by their teacher, schools often try to prove or disprove the complaint themselves before reporting.
What is the statute of limitations on filing in cases of abuse by coaches in WA? I notice many of the victims are now adults. Are they able to pursue legal action or is it too late? Jennifer, Seattle
M.O.: The statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases is very complicated and varies depending on the crime, the age of the victim and other factors. Generally, however, in cases like this, victims have until they're 21 to file criminal charges. We spoke with several victims who say that they weren't able to tell anyone what happened to them until years later. In many cases, the statute of limitations had passed before they could report.
How did you obtain the majority of your documents? Were they strictly from the districts, or were some of them from victims, etc? Tom, Kenmore
C.W.: The Times filed public disclosure act requests to the OSPI (the state education office) and dozens of school districts. The requests included information on coaches who have been accused of sexual misconduct. Research also included court documents and police reports. The cooperation of several victims also put a human voice to the story of abuse.
Since fingerprint screening is now done for any coach, with any program, in CA, why can't this be done in WA where such violations can be recorded and kept on file? Jim Clark, Westlake, Calif.
M.O.: Fingerprint screening may be an option. However, that will pick up only criminal offenses, and could give a false sense of security. As we discovered, some abuse complaints never make it to the criminal level.
Do you think that having a written policy on file that school authorities MUST contact CPS or the police when any "improper" behavior is reported would help protect kids? Lisa Leitz, Royal City, Wash.
M.O.: There is a mandatory reporting law in Washington that requires school officials to notify CPS and/or police within 48 hours of learning of an abuse case. Educators can be sanctioned if they fail to report. However, the schools often conduct their own investigation of misconduct allegations before notifying CPS and in some cases, they don't notify CPS if they can't prove the abuse occurred.
Have you found any woman coaches to write about? Jeff Snell, Aberdeen
M.O.: Although there are a few cases of women coaches, the vast majority of cases involved male coaches and girls. That's why we chose to focus on them.
What did you find to be the most astonishing aspect that was woven throughout all the cases you investigated? Stephen
C.W.: The Times had to constantly struggle to get public records of misconduct by teachers and coaches. Schools were the most reluctant in giving The Times the information. It was astonishing to see schools protect files of coaches with misconduct even though the WA Supreme Court has a clear ruling on that issue.
Have any of the coaches you profile in your articles attempted to contact you to refute what you have written? Did you personally interview any of them? Rick, Federal Way
M.O.: We attempted to contact every coach we wrote about. If they didn't respond to phone calls, we sent them registered letters or called their attorneys. While a number of coaches did not respond to these queries, numerous coaches did. We spoke to numerous coaches in the course of our investigation.
What needs to happen legislatively to prevent coaches from abusing our children? Mark Masterson, Yakima
M.O.: We included some suggested "solutions" in our series, including legislation that would require school districts to check for misconduct records at previous employers, and also require previous employers to provide the prospective employer all records of misconduct cases.
How is it that you came across all of this information? Especially in the cases where there were no convictions? Hakeem Akam, Redmond
C.W.: We filed public disclosure act requests to school districts, including some of the largest districts in the state, asking for records on coaches and teachers with complaints of sexual misconduct. We also got information regarding sexual misconduct from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
I find it curious that Mary Kay Letourneau is in jail, yet not many of these coaches have ever served time. Comments? Barb T., Seattle
C.W.: Some of the coaches have been convicted of sex crimes. But schools don't always report the allegations to police, which they are required to do by law. If it's not reported to police, then the coach is never prosecuted.
I vividly remember a provocative note on the front page of Sunday's paper from one of the coaches. Is this something that you were able to obtain through a public disclosure request w/ OSPI? C.J., Seattle
M.O.: All of the documents we used in the stories were public records. Some came from court files, others from school districts and still others from OSPI. Any notes such as the one on the front page were part of the investigation files at the various agencies.
On the issue of the WIAA acting as a registry where schools could report misconduct by non-teaching coaches, there are a variety of hurdles. One is ensuring that schools report the misconduct. As your series noted, schools are often part of the problem, and not inclined to place themselves in harms way. A second hurdle is the very limited resources of the WIAA, which has its hands full dealing with hardships cases. It seems that any WIAA-based solution will require a good deal of thought to work. Any comments? James Cameron, Seattle
M.O.: Of course there are hurdles, and it would require the cooperation of school districts to report misconduct. The WIAA, however, has said it would consider such a program.
C.W.: If there is a system in place to track coaches with misconduct, parents and schools may believe it's worth the effort. The WIAA would have to put some teeth in the registry so that schools are required to report misconduct. It also may require some extra resources on the part of the WIAA.
How do I find out if my daughter's coach ever has been investigated and found guilty of taking inappropriate liberties with adolescent girls? Don Markey, Bellevue
C.W.: To find out if your daughter's coach has been convicted of a felony crime, you can contact the Washington State Patrol and file a request for information. Another option is to go to the courthouse and check records. If you want to know more about your coach's background, we suggest you contact current and former players, parents and employers.
You have mentioned repeatedly that there are 159 cases. Where can I find these names? Gerald Shepherd, Bellevue
C.W.: You can find many of them in a searchable database we created at www.seattletimes.com/coaches/
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