How do N.M. schools ensure coaches don’t cross line with their students?

Recent sexual assault cases highlight flaws in screening system, but administrators say they do what they can

By James Barron
The New Mexican
Posted 5/25/18

The recent arrests of New Mexico high school coaches on sex charges involving underage female students don’t shock Richard Tripp.

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How do N.M. schools ensure coaches don’t cross line with their students?

Recent sexual assault cases highlight flaws in screening system, but administrators say they do what they can

Posted

The recent arrests of New Mexico high school coaches on sex charges involving underage female students don’t shock Richard Tripp.

Tripp, the athletic director at West Las Vegas High School, said such incidents, while troubling, aren’t part of a new trend.

“It’s been going on for who knows how long,” Tripp said. “Sometimes coaches got away with it.”

Still, the frequency of sexual abuse allegations against coaches has increased of late -- punctuated by the arrest of Apolonio Blea, charged Wednesday with raping and stabbing a 14-year-old Mora girl when he was the Rangers’ boys basketball manager in 2016.

That came only weeks after Pecos assistant coach Dominick Baca, 29, was arrested on charges of criminal sexual penetration stemming from allegations he engaged in sexual acts with two female Pecos students over the past two years.

Blea, 21, also worked at Pecos this year as an assistant coach for the middle school boys basketball program.

Begin connecting the dots, and nearly every part of the state has seen similar sex abuses allegations arising from high school athletic programs.

In 2016, Moriarty assistant football coach Damien Hyatt, then 24, was arrested on 24 counts after a 16-year-old girl told Torrance County deputies she had sex with him. He has since faced allegations from a total of five students, including one who accuses Hyatt of raping her. Others say he offered to buy them alcohol in exchange for nude photos. The case is pending.

In 2017, Belen head boys basketball coach Patrick Mondragon, then 34, was accused of molesting a 17-year-old family member.

And on Friday, the trial of 59-year-old Questa volunteer coach John Rael, charged with raping a female student, ended in a hung jury. A second trial is scheduled in June.

Athletic directors and school administrators say it’s difficult to spot warning signs when hiring coaches, emphasizing that most adults who work with kids are caring, helpful and dedicated to making the high school experience a positive one.

“It can happen to anybody,” said Taylor Gantt, president of St. Michael’s High School. “Just because someone else had an incident doesn’t mean we won’t. We try to employ every safeguard possible to protect our students.

“But I feel for those victims, and it’s tough, as an administrator, to know that it happens. I do feel we do a lot of the right things and we have a lot of things in place.”

Most schools and school districts put prospective coaches’ résumés through reference checks and perform criminal background checks. They also look for signs of misconduct that might have occurred at a previous school. Still, officials say, those efforts can only reveal so much.

Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said that even if a complaint were filed against a prospective applicant, it might go undetected in the hiring process because schools don’t have to report accusations they can’t corroborate.

“We can be vulnerable, but we always do our background checks,” García said.

A civil lawsuit filed last week by the parents of one of the two Pecos students accusing Baca of sexual misconduct claimed district administrators failed to take action on a third student’s allegations against the coach in the fall of 2016.

The lawsuit, filed in the state’s 4th Judicial District Court, contends the student told a basketball coach about Baca’s behavior, who then reported the matter to Pecos High School Principal Simon Miera and Pecos Superintendent Fred Trujillo. Miera, Trujillo and the Pecos school board “did not conduct an adequate investigation” into the matter, the suit says, and did not discipline Baca.

It wasn’t until New Mexico State Police took up an investigation in March that allegations into Baca’s conduct came to light.

Trujillo did not return a phone message left by The New Mexican.

Policies and guidelines on coaches’ conduct, especially with the athletes they supervise, are spelled out in employee handbooks, and athletic directors and occasionally other administrators will hold meetings with coaches to reiterate those points.

Gantt said St. Michael’s makes its guidelines very clear regarding coach-athlete or employee-student associations.

“If you foster any kind of a relationship, you lose your job,” Gantt said. “We don’t mince words about it.”

Still, Las Vegas’ Tripp acknowledged, it can be hard for younger coaches to steer clear of those issues. Blea was 20 and a year removed from his Mora High School graduation when he was accused of sexual misconduct with the 14-year-old student. He was a volunteer with the Rangers’ boys basketball team at the time.

But Tripp said it’s not uncommon for recent high school graduates, some still in their teens, to jump right into the paid coaching pool, especially at their alma maters.

It’s easier for young and inexperienced candidates to get a job coaching younger students because it’s not easy to find coaches for sub-varsity and middle school programs, he said.

“You’ve got to remind your head coaches that he’s fresh out of high school,” Tripp said. “He used to be friends with a lot of these kids. In some cases, you get a guy, and he was a senior, and he dated a girl who was a junior. Now, he can’t date her -- not if he wants to coach.”

Schools can’t institute a minimum-age policy for coaches, García said, because that would violate state and federal laws. Requiring applicants to have a high school diploma or a college degree can help with the age gap, but it’s not a cure-all.

“I’ve seen this kind of misconduct in all age groups,” García said. “I don’t think because someone is 22 or 23, they are more likely to misbehave than someone who is 65.”

The explosion of social media over the last 10 years, and the use of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and video-calling features on smartphones, have offered easier ways to communicate with youngsters.

Arrest warrant affidavits for both Baca and Blea alleged they used social media apps and text messages to talk to student accusers.

But Tripp noted that social media also tends to expose sexual misconduct.

“Due to technology and social media, things are easier to find out,” he said. “It leaves a trail. ... In the past, if a coach was let go and people ask, ‘Why is he gone?’ it was, ‘Oh, we just let him go.’ Now, next thing you know, it’s all on Facebook.”

Administrators and coaches say comprehensive policies regarding social media communications between coaches and students are always evolving. West Las Vegas’ handbook is updated almost yearly because of its social media policy, Tripp said.

Larry Chavez, the athletic director for Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district is starting to address social media policy for coaches and considering restrictions.

“That’s maybe for the future,” Chavez said, “but right now, we are talking about guidelines.”

Española Valley High School head volleyball coach Damon Salazar said he makes a point of not becoming Facebook friends with his players until after they graduate, and sometimes not for a couple of years after that. He uses group text messages to communicate with his players, and he includes parents in them, he said.

Above all else, Salazar said, it’s vital to make sure the player-coach relationship is strictly professional.

But that is easier said than done.

“It’s a tough line,” Salazar said. “You spend a lot of time with these players, and you do develop relationships. But it has to be that coach-athlete dynamic or teacher-student. When things get too casual, that’s when you run into problems.”

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