Coaches who prey: The abuse of girls and the system that allows it
Seattle Times staff reporters
The girl, raised in a troubled home, saw Randy Sheriff not only as a mentor on dribbling and jump-shooting, but as surrogate parent, confidant and "the greatest dad in the world."
Sheriff showered her first with attention, then with flowers and chocolates, then with kisses.
Before long, the coach — a married man with two children of his own — was sending the teenager love notes. By the time she was 16, she says, they were having sex.
People around them suspected as much but looked the other way as Sheriff isolated the girl from her friends and family.
Although Port Townsend school officials believed Sheriff was having an intimate relationship with her, they simply nudged him out of town, allowing him to land a coaching job in the Cascade Mountain burg of Cle Elum, where he was ultimately accused of preying on another girl.
He had to leave that school, too, but continued to coach, this time for girls on elite private teams in the Seattle area.
This is the secret side of the fast-growing world of girls sports. In a yearlong investigation that involved an ongoing court battle with school districts and the state teachers union, The Seattle Times discovered:
• Over the past decade, 159 coaches in Washington have been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. Nearly all were male coaches victimizing girls. At least 98 of these coaches continued to coach or teach.
• The number of offending coaches is much greater. When faced with complaints against coaches, school officials often failed to investigate them and sometimes ignored a law requiring them to report suspected abuse to police. Many times, they disregarded a state law requiring them to report misconduct to the state education office.
• Even after getting caught, many men were allowed to continue coaching because school administrators promised to keep their disciplinary records secret if the coaches simply left. Some districts paid tens of thousands of dollars to get coaches to leave. Other districts hired coaches they knew had records of sexual misconduct.
• When the state gets involved, its investigations can be as flawed as local districts'. On average, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) took two years to investigate a case and sometimes didn't conduct a single interview with a victim, coach or school official. Often, the state simply dropped investigations, leaving accused coaches with clean records and valid teaching certificates.
• In the growing field of private club teams, coaches can get a job or start a team with almost no regulation or oversight. Men who coach teams sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union have been convicted of such crimes as assault, indecent liberties with a child and drug possession.
• With all of these system failures, parents are the last line of defense for female athletes. But too often, parents ignore the warning signs of sexual misconduct. Some parents suspected abuse and did little to stop it, trusting the coaches while doubting their young accusers.
"Unfortunately, everyone has an investment in the silence — the parents, the team and community," said Sandra Kirby, a Canadian sociologist who studied sex abuse of athletes by coaches. "The measure is, if a coach has had good successes, that's all they are worried about. They're ignoring the victims."
NEED FOR COACHES GREATER THAN EVER
A small number of unscrupulous coaches exploits the opportunity
The demand for quality coaching in girls sports has burgeoned since 1972, when Congress passed Title IX, a law requiring that girls be given the same educational — and athletic — opportunities as boys.
Today, the soccer fields and basketball courts of America are nearly as likely to be occupied by females as by males. The number of girls playing high-school sports in Washington has tripled since 1972. Last year, 43 percent of high-school girls played sports.
That doesn't include the thousands of girls, teenage or younger, who take part in recreational or club teams outside the school setting.
This boom created a nearly insatiable call for coaches, most of whom are men.
Coaching is a demanding profession, with long hours, often low pay and pressure from insistent fans. For most of the more than 20,000 coaches in this state, the reward is the satisfaction of mentoring student-athletes, not only in the skills of a particular sport, but in the values of teamwork, practice and sportsmanship.
But for a small and unscrupulous minority, there is another reward: the opportunity to sexually prey upon their young charges.
Coaching presents a unique opportunity for such misconduct. Coaches work with athletes for hours at a time, often over several years, in unstructured settings such as locker rooms and out-of-town tournaments. Coaches tell them what to eat, how to train and even with whom to associate.
Coaches are generally admired by kids and parents and, like priests, might be the last people suspected of abuse. As a profession, coaching has one of the highest rates of sexual-misconduct complaints, according to Bill Lennon, a Bellevue licensed sex-offender therapist and expert on sexual abuse by teachers.
A study of North Carolina schools found that the No. 1 reason for dismissal of a coach — accounting for 1 in every 5 firings — was not a team's poor performance on the field, but the coach's sexual relationship with a student.
The Times analysis shows that Washington teachers who coach are three times more likely to be investigated by the state for sexual misconduct than noncoaching teachers. (Coaches who teach at private schools are not required to have a teaching certificate. Without public records, reporters could not include them in the analysis.)
Misconduct by coaches runs the gamut: a Northshore coach who had sex with a girl for several years and now teaches in Snohomish County; a Davenport coach who paid girls to pose for pornographic pictures and videos; a Lynnwood-area basketball coach accused last week of molesting four girls.
The laws are clear. In Washington, a teacher commits a crime if he has sex with a student younger than 18. For coaches who aren't teachers, it's against the law to have sex with someone younger than 16 or with a person younger than 18 if they abuse their "supervisory position" — giving punishment or rewards — to obtain sex.
But the crime is hard to prove and the law rarely used.
In looking at specific cases, The Times found how easily a predatory coach can take advantage of an unsuspecting student, and how easily he can move on to other victims.
VULNERABLE GIRLS CAN BECOME VICTIMS
How a Port Townsend coach took advantage of a troubled teenager
Randy Sheriff came to Port Townsend in 1983 with an impressive résumé. He had led Seattle's Roosevelt High School basketball team to the 1973 state tournament and later played professional basketball in Europe.
Sheriff coached girls volleyball and boys basketball and taught driver's education at Port Townsend High School.
In 1988, he took an interest in a 15-year-old girl with long brown hair. He sharpened her basketball skills and talked about her troubles at home. One night, she needed to talk about a fight she had had with her dad. The girl met Sheriff at a picnic table in a park, looking for support.
"He really didn't seem to want to talk about it," she said in court records. "He just leaned over and gave me a full-on French kiss."
Before long, Sheriff was sending her love notes, she said.
"I felt puzzled, like I was falling in love," the girl said. "He was my lifeline."
By the time she was 16, she said, she and the coach were having sex in his car, at his house and in motels. Occasionally, she said, he brought along alcohol and marijuana they both used.
(The girl is not being named because The Times generally does not identify people who were sexually victimized. Others did agree to be identified.)
She baby-sat his two children. Sheriff made her his coaching assistant for the Port Townsend boys basketball team and brought her on road trips. She trained with him at his California basketball camp, and he took her to Australia with an adult men's team.
The relationship took its toll on her. Because Sheriff insisted on secrecy, the teenager distanced herself from family and friends, feeling alone and ashamed.
"If we were driving where people might see us, he would put my head down onto the seat of the car until we got out of town," she later said in a statement. "That was extremely humiliating for me."
The girl slipped into depression and had suicidal thoughts. Word of their relationship spread through the high school. Heather Carter, a Port Townsend graduate, said students "snickered" when the pair disappeared into a room off the gym. "Everyone in the school knew they were having an affair."
Some employees raised concerns with Principal Jim Carter. He talked to Sheriff and the girl, but both denied any intimacy, and the matter was dropped.
But suspicions continued to circulate, and in 1990, Carter sent Sheriff a letter ordering him to stay away from the student.
"There were no more reports and apparently what we did must have worked, because the student left the school district," Carter said in an interview. "We were satisfied if there was anything going on, we had cut that short."
But the relationship hadn't ended. The girl moved in with her mother, transferring to Friday Harbor High School on San Juan Island for her senior year, and played basketball.
After one of her games, coach Vic Woodward questioned the girl about reports that Sheriff had been seen giving her a piggyback ride and kissing her.
She admitted it was true. Woodward "told me it had to stop or he would have to tell someone. He never asked me about it again," she later told state investigators.
In 1998, she sued the Port Townsend district and Sheriff. A psychologist hired by her lawyer evaluated her, writing in a report: "It appears that Mr. Sheriff took advantage of her vulnerability by requiring her to engage in sexual activity with him in return for his attention and affection. Not only did Mr. Sheriff have a significant advantage over (the girl) due to the age differential, he also enjoyed a power position from his role as a teacher and coach."
"Don't have blind faith — I did," her father said recently. "He is a coach. He is in a position of authority. I didn't think anything could go wrong."
The district settled with her in 2002, paying $50,000. Sheriff settled earlier for an undisclosed sum. The victim's lawyer described school officials' attitude as "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil."
In 1991, Port Townsend school officials told Sheriff he was no longer needed as the boys basketball coach despite taking the team to the state tournament.
New school district finds love letter from Sheriff to basketball star
By the next school year, Sheriff found another coaching and teaching job, this time at Cle Elum-Roslyn High School. He coached girls volleyball and softball and boys basketball.
Personnel files are unclear when the new district learned of Sheriff's intimacy with the Port Townsend girl. However, Cle Elum-Roslyn Principal Jim Stephenson assigned Brian Pendleton, a director of extracurricular activities, to keep an eye on Sheriff.
And before long, Sheriff again was focusing his attention on a girl who was the star of the volleyball and basketball teams.
"It was clear from week two it was already inappropriate," Pendleton said. "I was angry he had been passed to Cle Elum. Someone passed a problem along and we kept hurting kids."
In a letter to Cle Elum-Roslyn Superintendent Jake Walker, Pendleton reported that more than 20 parents had lodged complaints about Sheriff in fall 1994: spending unsupervised time with girls after practices, allowing them to drive his car and developing an unusually close relationship with his star player.
In March 1995, administrators were given a love letter, found in the school parking lot, from Sheriff to the girl.
"The way we play off each other is so instinctual, so natural, I can't help but think about the potential," Sheriff wrote. "No one cares more for you, no one. Remember I have worshipped you so long — and then had you — now lost you."
Cle Elum school officials had seen enough. They reached an agreement with the coach and his union: He would quit, and the district would drop its investigation and not disclose his misconduct to potential employers.
Pendleton, currently principal of Walla Walla High School, said he is angry with how he and district officials handled the case.
"I am a little disappointed in myself," he said. "You are supposed to call the cops. I probably should have."
Cle Elum officials sent the sexual-misconduct complaint about Sheriff to the state superintendent in 1995.
After four years of investigating the problems in Cle Elum and Port Townsend, the state decided to revoke Sheriff's teaching license, concluding he had sex with a student and sent love letters to another. At that point, Sheriff voluntarily gave up the license.
But that wouldn't stop him from coaching.
Pushed out of public schools, coaches start their own private teams
As the participation in girls sports has exploded, so have the opportunities for college scholarships for female athletes. Competition for those scholarships has created a new phenomenon: elite club, or "select," teams for girls.
These teams are big business, with parents paying coaches thousands of dollars to sharpen their daughters' skills.
Sandy Schneider, a longtime girls basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Lakeside School in Seattle, sees this largely unregulated world as dangerous territory. Unsupervised coaches are traveling with athletes, staying overnight in hotels and spending countless hours individually training girls — for fees of up to $600 a month.
"There are a lot of kids and families in a position to be exploited," Schneider said.
Roger Hansen, a highly regarded coach and athletic director for Lake Washington High School, explained: "Joe Blow off the street can go out and recruit and say anything and do anything and promise anything to kids and start his own team."
It was here that Sheriff found his next coaching opportunity.
Shut off from public-school teaching, Sheriff landed positions in the late 1990s with two club teams: the Bellevue Girls Select Basketball team and the Puget Sound Flight.
Going into private coaching is an easy option for coaches with troubled pasts. The Times found at least nine other coaches like Sheriff who had been reprimanded, fired or pushed out of public-school jobs for sexual misconduct but continued coaching for nonschool teams.
Sheriff insists he told the directors of those teams about his past. "I've been honest and told them there were allegations, and still they wanted me to coach," he said in an interview. "They begged me to coach. I've been above and beyond reproach in the past 10 years."
But Dennis Edwards, Puget Sound Flight director of operations, said he didn't know about Sheriff's reputation until a parent informed him three years later. Edwards said he gave Sheriff a choice: Quit or tell players and parents about his past.
Sheriff quit but continued to coach for Bellevue Girls Select. Then in May 2000, he was hired by Barbara Berry, a former University of Washington basketball player, to coach The Way to Win, a private basketball program in Maple Valley.
Berry said she had known Sheriff for years, seeing him at coaching clinics, camps and tournaments, and considers him "the best basketball coach I know, strictly from a basketball sense."
Shortly after Sheriff started, Berry heard complaints about her friend's tainted history. "Some didn't come to The Way to Win program because of it," Berry said. "I would get phone calls about Randy all the time."
Even after learning about Sheriff's past, however, Berry didn't say anything to her players or their parents.
A few months ago, after reporters started looking into Sheriff's past, he quit coaching for The Way to Win and Bellevue Girls Select. He now works as a motivational speaker. In an interview, Sheriff said: "I've had no inappropriate behavior with students. I've always denied all the historical allegations."
INVESTIGATIONS CAN BE LENGTHY
While the process drags on, teachers who coach often hop to new districts
Just how many Randy Sheriffs are still coaching girls is impossible to say. The Times' investigation found that school districts are hesitant to even begin investigations, and when they do, the burden tends to fall more on the accusing player than on the accused coach.
Even when districts find evidence of abuse, they often simply pass the offending coach on to another unsuspecting district. And when the state gets involved, investigations are haphazard and can drag on for years.
For example, the OSPI took nearly five years to investigate complaints against Mark A. Taylor, now 44, a Bethel School District volleyball coach and science teacher.
Most of that time, the file sat on OSPI shelves. Taylor had been forced to resign in 1993 from Spanaway Junior High after female students complained that he slipped his hand down a girl's shirt and fondled her breast on the ride home from a class trip to a water park.
By law, school districts are supposed to inform the OSPI when they have "reliable information" that teachers aren't of "good moral character" or have committed unprofessional conduct.
The state then must investigate and determine whether those teachers should face discipline, up to losing their licenses.
Bethel officials passed their findings along, but the OSPI took so long to close the case — 1,765 days — that Taylor landed another coaching and teaching job at Clover Park in Pierce County and then at Lake Stevens in Snohomish County. Lake Stevens did not know about complaints against Taylor, and records are unclear whether Clover Park knew.
And girls at those schools accused Taylor of always trying to find ways to be alone with them and sexually harassing them.
While the OSPI sat on the case, Taylor's teaching license expired. The state, following its policy, closed his case without a resolution. In the past 10 years, the OSPI dismissed 12 sexual-misconduct cases because teachers' licenses lapsed during the often slow-paced and incomplete investigations.
But Taylor immediately applied to renew his lapsed license.
At first, the OSPI stated it would give him one, but only if he went on probation for four years and told future employers about his misconduct.
Faced with a legal fight from Taylor's union attorney, the OSPI instead gave him a written reprimand, telling him not to sexually touch or harass girls again.
Taylor taught at Covington Middle School in Vancouver, Wash., for the 2000 school year. He now has a post-office-box address in Washington, D.C., but it's unclear if he is teaching.
LESS OVERSIGHT IN PRIVATE SPORTS
Confused young girls often don't recognize what's happening until it's too late
Most shocking, perhaps, are cases where officials and parents have reason to suspect problems with coaches but look away.
Glen Whitworth had already been let go from two positions coaching gymnastics. In the Puyallup School District, an assistant coach complained that Whitworth constantly made sexual innuendoes to the girls. In Federal Way, at Gymnastics Unlimited, girls as young as 9 told the gym's owner that Whitworth talked about sex with them.
But these complaints didn't stop some parents from helping Whitworth open a gym in the Pierce County town of Sumner.
"I couldn't believe people left here to go be with him," said David Mackey, who had fired Whitworth from Gymnastics Unlimited. "I was thinking the parents would keep him in check."
This time, Whitworth had no boss. And this time, he went a lot further.
When one petite, 13-year-old gymnast met Whitworth at his new gym, she looked up to him from the start.
"You trust your coach," said the girl, now 26 years old. "You get up on a four-inch beam and you start to do a flip and if you miss, they're going to catch you. We, like, thought he was god. We worshipped him."
By the time Whitworth invited the girl to a slumber party at the gym, he had control of her emotionally. That night, he pulled her to him and, with other girls sleeping nearby, forced her to give him oral sex, according to a police report. Then he ordered her to go back to sleep.
The girl was confused, knowing at some level that Whitworth's actions were despicable, but at the same time feeling she was "chosen."
A week later, he put her on his team. "I was excited because I got to be on the team with the girls that were really good and everyone in the gym looks up to those girls," she said.
So when Whitworth encouraged her and another girl to stay late with him at the gym and drink liquor, she found herself going along. Later, he showed them pornographic videos.
Ultimately, the girl was having sex with her coach almost on a daily basis.
She was a typical target — lacking a father figure and having low self-esteem. "I had no ability to say no," she recalls. "I was a loner. I felt like I wasn't an understood person."
After graduating and leaving Sumner, the girl unburdened herself to a friend, who urged her to call police.
Whitworth was arrested and convicted of two counts of third-degree rape of a child.
Even with that record, there's nothing stopping Whitworth, or any other registered sex offender, from setting himself up again as a coach.
Lakeside coach Schneider can't believe it. "My question is, who's overseeing these people?"
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or email@example.com
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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