Coaches misdeeds no longer hidden away

DOVER — The details are as shocking as they are sordid.

This particular high school wrestling coach piled up more than his share of conference titles in Washington state.

But he also left behind a trail of complaints for improper behavior with underage girls.

Eventually he was forced to resign.

Here’s the kicker, though.

After the coach stepped down, another high school in the state hired him as a teacher and coach.

Not only that, but the coach won a $27,500 settlement from the first district because it reported his behavior to the state after agreeing not to.

The story is all detailed in a special report done by the Seattle Times in 2003. The newspaper did a yearlong study in the state of Washington entitled, ‘Coaches Who Prey: The abuse of girls and the system that allows it.’

The Seattle Times’ study found that of 159 coaches who were reprimanded or fired for sexual misconduct, 98 were still teaching or coaching.

Now, of course, we’re dealing with a high school coach sex scandal in our own community.

Last week, successful Caesar Rodney High wrestling coach Dickie Howell, 50, was arrested on allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female student.

But there was one major difference between the two stories.

While the Washington coach’s behavior was swept under the rug for a long time, Howell’s arrest was front-page news. If he’s found guilty, it’s difficult to imagine him ever being able to coach again at the high school level.

So while the issue of coaches — both male and female — abusing their positions of power with underage students is hardly a new one, there are signs that school districts’ sometimes cavalier attitude toward the problem has changed.

Certainly, the public has grown accustomed to reading reports of teachers, some who are also coaches, being arrested on sex-crime charges.

“When you think about the numbers, it seems like a lot — and it is,” said Kevin Charles, executive director for the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association. “One is too many.

“But even in my span as executive director, the way they were handled even just five to eight years ago — where a lot of times it was kind of swept under the rug and you tried to hide it — I don’t see that going on now. These are criminal acts, they have severe consequences. … We’re in a society today where we’re changing some of the norms.

“These things should never have been accepted in society but they were,” he added. “More and more today they seem to be becoming unacceptable. That’s progress.”

In Delaware, there was no more tangible example of that change than in the Bill Billings situation at Middletown High.

In the 1960s, Billings built the Cavaliers into one of the top football programs in the state. Eventually, the school’s stadium was named after him.

But, four years ago, Billings’ name was removed from the stadium after the Appoquinimink School District reached a $100,000 settlement with a former Middletown female student who alleged she was sexually abused by the former legendary coach.

While the stories of coaches being arrested get everyone’s attention, the reality is they are the exception, not the rule.

“The vast majority of our teachers, administrators and our coaches are doing the right thing,” said Charles.

But coaches, like band directors, club moderators and other teachers who work with students outside of school, are in a unique position.

They can have a great deal of influence on a student’s life, said Charles.

Most use the opportunity for good. Unfortunately, the ones who misuse that trust can have a long-lasting effect on a student’s life, too.

“A coach spends so much time with a student,” said Charles. “When you think about the way a lot of extracurricular activities are — whether it be band or drama or chorus — there’s a lot of one-on-one time. There’s a special relationship that can be developed. Just as coaches have tremendous power for positive influence, there’s also power for negative influence as well there.

“But in a relationship with a student, lines have to be drawn. And it always has to be the adult that draws the line. You can’t allow the student to establish the lines.”

So how big is the problem? Is it getting worse? Is it getting better? Do we just hear about it more now?

If you do any research on the subject, you can find plenty of national stats. But most experts tell you that sex crimes involving children are under-reported for various reasons.

And it’s almost impossible to do any meaningful comparisons of statistics from say, 50 years ago, because the situations were often handled much differently.

The fact is, as far as the DIAA is concerned, there are only three basic requirements for being a high school head coach in Delaware — that the coach be approved by the school board, that they have CPR certification and take a course in dealing with concussions. The presumption is that the school district will conduct background checks.

Of course, while many non-school-related youth sports organizations require criminal background checks, too, there’s others that don’t.

Charles would like to see a more comprehensive certification program for coaches put in place. The National Federation offers online courses in coaching fundamentals and other things, such as a coach’s relationship with their student-athletes.

“I’m a strong believer in coach’s certification,” said Charles. “We’re trying to work towards that.”

Logic says that Howell’s arrest isn’t the last time that a local coach’s alleged behavior will shock us.

The sobering thought is that there’s probably a coach somewhere in the U.S. right now involved in an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Does that mean every coach should be looked at as a potential criminal? Of course not.

But it does mean parents should always pay attention to what’s going on with their kids and not be afraid to ask questions if something doesn’t seem right.

“I’m not the expert on this,” said Charles. “But when your kids are on the computer and on the phone, obviously you need to know what your kids are doing. Certainly you want to respect their privacy. But they’re still your children.

“Educating and informing yourself and learning how to recognize when something’s wrong. … that can be hard to do with teenagers and adolescents. And I think it’s very appropriate for a parent to look at how a coach conducts themselves around the players. If they have concerns, certainly they should follow up on those concerns — talk to their kids, talk to the school administration.”

Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or walter@newszap.com.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.