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Playing it safe

Mt. Spokane assistant track coach Jeanne Helfer gives javelin thrower Jared Ryan, 17, a high-five after a throw at Shadle Park High School in March.
 (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
Mt. Spokane assistant track coach Jeanne Helfer gives javelin thrower Jared Ryan, 17, a high-five after a throw at Shadle Park High School in March. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

On the rare occasion when Dick Cullen could break away from his duties as a teacher and soccer coach to take his wife on a date, he would hire one of his players to baby-sit.

“I’d drive to get them and take them home,” said Cullen, now the Mead High School athletic director. “We were very, very casual. Not anymore.”

In a world more aware of child abuse, fear of accusations has led some adults to change the way they relate to kids. Coaches say they avoid situations that could lead to accusations, like being alone with a student athlete, and are more reserved with displays of affection that would have appeared innocent in past generations.

“I certainly don’t grab kids by the arm like my mom grabbed us when she was upset,” said Sue Doering, a longtime volleyball coach at Colfax High School. “As for hugging or those kinds of things, I’ve always been close to kids but I’m probably a lot more careful.”

There have been some high-profile cases involving area coaches in recent years. Among them:

“Dana Schmerer, the former head girls softball coach at West Valley High School and a teacher in the Central Valley School District, was the subject of a yearlong investigation into accusations that he had a sexual relationship with a female student.

The Spokane County sheriff’s sexual assault unit cleared the teacher of any criminal wrongdoing, but the state issued a proposed order of revocation of Schmerer’s teaching certificate. He has appealed the proposed order.

“Steve Altmeyer, the former boys basketball coach and teacher at Valley Christian School, had been the subject of a two-year state investigation into allegations that he physically and verbally abused students and athletes. The state suspended his teaching certificate and he is appealing the decision.

“In 1997, a U.S. District Court jury found that the Davenport School District failed to protect a Davenport High student from Charles “C.J.” Jungblom, a counselor and girls basketball coach, who forced the student to appear in pornographic videos. The jury awarded almost $4 million to the former student and her family. Jungblom pleaded guilty in 1994 to sexual exploitation of a child and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Coaches say such cases reflect badly on them all.”It’s sad,” said Mt. Spokane teacher Jeanne Helfer, a former star athlete and longtime coach. “I can’t believe we even have to have this conversation.”

“The percentage is small, but one sexual (mis)conduct is one too many,” said Charles Schreck, the director of the office of professional practices at the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. He cited 370 cases involving sexual misconduct of teachers over the past 17 years. The statistics of investigations don’t distinguish coaches from teachers, but the majority of coaches are certified teachers.

“One bad incident is just the worst,” echoed Cullen. “Unfortunately, there are still some real horror stories out there (but) I find that people who wear their emotions on their sleeves and have all the right intentions still do that.

“It’s a different time, but you can still be yourself. You just have to be more sensitive to kids and their families. The parents trust you with their child. It’s a huge responsibility.”

And Helfer, also a parent, is aware in a way that never entered her mind growing up as a standout athlete in Walla Walla.

“Have I worried about my daughter in those situations?” she asked. “No, because I know who her coaches are. Have I considered it? Yes. Have I paid more attention to it? Yes.”

Though she understands the heightened vigilance, she struggles with the impact it has on coaching.

“I can’t coach and be me and be effective with kids if you completely tie my hands,” Helfer said. “It does make me think, but I am who I am. I’ll hug a girl when she’s crying, I’ll hug a girl when I’m excited. I’m not supposed to do this?

“This is a people business. In the back of your mind, you’re always asking yourself, ‘Am I OK here?’ It’s something I think about more than I did at the beginning of my career.”

Still, Cullen said, the rewards are worth being more diligent.

“It’s still an exciting time to be a coach,” he said. “You have so much sharing and fun, you have a chance to encourage kids. It’s just a little more cumbersome, but, hey, it’s precious cargo. Parents want to feel their kids are in the right hands.”

To that end, many school districts are teaching coaches how to identify abuse and how to stay away from situations that can be misinterpreted as abuse.

“Allegations are legitimate in terms of what the child is feeling,” said Staci Vesneske, the human resources assistant director for Spokane Public Schools. “Frequently, we can identify something that the coach should have done differently to avoid the student getting that perception.”

Dick Langham, a program representative for Canfield & Associates, a third-party administrator for insurance companies, offers free presentations to help districts protect themselves from lawsuits involving abuse by educating coaches on how to avoid situations that could be misinterpreted and how to spot other coaches crossing the line. Spokane Public Schools doesn’t use Langham’s services, but the district does offer workshops.

“It starts in their professional education program, where they talk about professional standards,” Vesneske said. “In addition, nearly every year the Spokane Education Association offers workshops specifically with coaches, how they can interact with kids in a way so it doesn’t put them at risk.”

The district is also preparing online training for out-of-building or walk-on coaches who are not teachers. In the early 1970s there wasn’t this type of awareness and training, according to Cullen.

“It was basically up to each coach’s integrity and professionalism,” said Cullen, who coached the boys and girls soccer teams at Mead. “Most of the instruction came as a reaction (to abuse). There was nothing beforehand.”

That’s still true for many school districts that don’t have the resources for intensive training and rely on common sense and reacting quickly to bad situations.

“We haven’t done anything (in-house),” Tekoa-Oakesdale athletic director Ken Lindgren said. “As athletic director I remind our coaches of those things. It’s crazy the way things are; it’s a crazy world, now. I think we rule by common sense; that’s the way it is in small communities.”

Debra Clemens, assistant superintendent of the Cheney School District, said, “When allegations are brought forward, they’re taken very seriously. We drop everything.”

Depending on the severity, the coach in question can be put on administrative leave. An investigation, with legal consultation, will move forward quickly, and the findings are forwarded to Schreck’s office.

In Idaho, certified teachers have to take a course in coaching principles to be a head coach, and the Idaho High School Activities Association would like to see that extended to all coaches. However, there are no other requirements.

Larry Schwenke, a longtime Coeur d’Alene teacher, coach and soon-to-be-retired athletic director at Coeur d’Alene High School, said, “It’s like anything else, when those things come up you think, ‘What can we do better?’ “

Youth sports organizations also have limitations.

Just like teachers, youth coaches have to go through Washington State Patrol background checks. The process is online and takes only a couple of days to be completed.

Schwenke pointed out there is an American Sports Education program youth coaches can take online, and they can sign up for the same classes as teacher-coaches.

Should a parent suspect a youth coach of improprieties, Tandie Dahnke, president of Spokane Valley Junior Soccer Association, said, “Call the cops. There’s nothing we can do.”


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