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Community Rocked by School Sex Scandals : Ventura: Parents, teachers and officials struggle to cope as a third coach faces allegations of sexual misconduct with students.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the small, concrete-floored coaches’ office at the Ventura High School field house, photos of the school’s black-and-gold uniformed football teams line one wall.

“Ventura High School Cougars--Channel League Champions,” the inscription for each photo reads, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993.

Standing in the center row in each portrait, except the most recent, is former head coach Harvey W. Kochel. Near him, in all but the two earliest photos, is assistant coach Bret Taylor.

Kochel was fired two years ago and later went to prison for having sex with a 15-year-old student. Taylor was put on leave without pay last month and faces possible dismissal on similar allegations.

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And in between the Kochel and Taylor cases, another member of the school’s athletic department--swim coach Dale Hahn--surrendered his California teaching credential on allegations that he had sex with two students.

What is going on at Ventura High?

With three coaches accused of sexual misconduct in the past two years, parents, students and Ventura school officials are struggling to come to grips with the series of scandals.

The Kochel case brought loads of notoriety and heaps of community criticism on the Ventura Unified School District. Critics charge that school officials knew for years about Kochel’s behavior but did nothing about it.

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Then the coach was put behind bars and the uproar died down. Less than a year after Kochel went to prison, Hahn was suspended.

To help boost the school’s battered image, Supt. Joseph Spirito shook up Ventura High’s administration, naming a new principal and three new assistant principals, who took over July 1.

The coming school year was supposed to provide a fresh start. Then the Taylor case broke.

“I absolutely couldn’t believe that it could happen so soon, so quick, so much the same,” said Vickie Nicoletto, whose daughter, Tammie, will be a sophomore at Ventura High this fall. “It’s appalling.”

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Experts say it is unusual for three teachers from one school to face allegations of sexual misconduct within such a short period, but only because many are not caught. Improper behavior by teachers is widespread, they say. Many Ventura High parents and students say they don’t believe that such incidents are limited to their school.

“I’m sorry,” said Sandy Rasmussen, who has two daughters at the high school. “I just don’t believe that every person who could be a pervert and hit on girls is teaching at Ventura High School.”

Some wonder whether Kochel may have created a climate that condoned coaches fooling around with students.

“Because he was the head coach, he made it seem OK,” said Linda Hale, a volunteer in the Ventura High School office, whose son will be a senior this year.

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Yet others question whether the district is becoming overzealous in its stated “zero-tolerance” approach to sexual misconduct, with investigations of teachers turning into witch hunts.

And still others say students who get involved with teachers must bear part of the blame.

Ventura Police Sgt. Bob Anderson said detectives who interviewed students during the investigations of Hahn and Taylor were surprised that some girls admitted pursuing young, good-looking teachers.

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“If they’re handsome hunks, they’re fair game,” Anderson said.

While the allegations against the three coaches each brought a similar sense of anguish to the school community, many people are quick to point out the differences in the three cases.

A hugely successful coach whose persona has been compared to that of former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, Kochel led the Ventura High Cougars to win or share league titles in six out of nine years from 1983 to 1991.

His career ended abruptly in September, 1992, when the parents of a female student handed school officials more than 50 sexually explicit letters that Kochel had written to their daughter.

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Prosecutors portrayed Kochel as the seducer, saying his early letters were written to coax the girl into having sex, while the later ones encouraged her to become more sexually aggressive.

And past complaints about his behavior emerged, including a letter that was sent to school officials in 1987 from a person who reported seeing a student having oral sex with Kochel in his car.

Faced with community criticism and a lawsuit by the 15-year-old’s parents, school officials defended themselves, saying they had repeatedly warned Kochel to change his ways. Officials said that before they got the letters they didn’t have the witnesses or evidence necessary to discipline the popular coach. Kochel served a year in prison and was released early this year.

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In the fall of 1993, about 11 months after Kochel was sentenced, the district suspended Hahn on similar charges.

A coach of the swim and water polo teams and a chemistry teacher, Hahn was accused of sleeping with two female students and making advances toward others. Although Hahn was never the subject of criminal charges, he agreed in June to give up his teaching credential in exchange for one year’s salary.

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Both Kochel and Hahn have had their share of supporters. But Taylor is drawing more sympathy and less condemnation from some parents. For one thing, he is closer in age to the students he is accused of dating.

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Hahn was 44 when the district took action against him. Kochel was 48. Taylor is now 28 and was just out of college when he began substitute teaching at Ventura High.

In addition, Taylor has for the past two years taught history at Balboa Middle School and only went to Ventura High after school to coach baseball and football. However, many of the allegations against him stem from incidents that reportedly occurred while he was substitute teaching at Ventura High during the 1990-91 school year.

Like Hahn, Taylor faces no criminal charges. The most egregious allegations against him-- that he had sex with two girls--are based on secondhand reports, according to a legal statement filed by the district with the state.

Taylor has verified some allegations, according to the report, including that he kissed one student when he gave her a ride in his car and kissed another while she was at his home working on a history report.

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And district officials say these incidents are serious enough to take the matter before an administrative panel to decide whether Taylor should be fired.

But some officials, parents and students say this time the district is going too far.

“I don’t understand how Harvey could let himself do what he did,” said head football coach Phil McKune, who was an assistant coach under Kochel. “I don’t understand how Dale could do what he did.”

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But McKune said he believes Taylor when he says his worst transgression was kissing a student. “He made a mistake and he knows he made a mistake,” McKune said. “But it’s not a career-ending mistake.”

“Things are getting real touchy,” said Paula Ward, vice president of the Ventura High Parent-Teacher Assn. “Because (Taylor) is the third one in a line, everybody’s fuse is real short and quick to jump.”

Ward’s daughter, Amy, and some other students and parents said they believe the girls who got involved with Taylor shoulder some responsibility.

“The girls ought to know not to go out with teachers,” Amy said.

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“Those girls wear tank tops that show almost everything,” said Erik Olson, the 17-year-old star quarterback of the Ventura High Cougars. “They think it’s cool to go out with a guy over 20.”

As parent Sandy Rasmussen put it: “I don’t think we can dump this all on the adults and say, ‘This is all your fault.’ Teen-agers have brains.”

But Tammie Nicoletto, who will be a sophomore this year, said she believes some girls are egged on by teachers who are flirtatious.

“They have a job,” Tammie said. “They should keep to their job and nothing else. If they want to pick up on younger girls, they should do it somewhere else.”

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Added Supt. Spirito: “We’ve all had infatuations as students with our teachers. They see a teacher they like and say, ‘Isn’t he nice looking.’ The difference is the teacher has to make a strong decision that you don’t cross the line.”

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Mary Jo McGrath, the attorney hired by the district to investigate the Hahn and Taylor cases, agreed that students can be aggressive. “The girls can actually be brutal, relentless, just flirt, flirt, flirt,” she said.

But research shows that high school students do not realize the ramifications of becoming involved with an older person, McGrath said.

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An expert on sexual misconduct by teachers, McGrath said she has investigated about 200 such cases in California schools over the past 18 years. Only a small number of the schools have had as many as three teachers who faced such allegations.

Of the 200 cases, McGrath said more than half have been against athletic coaches.

Like drama and music teachers, who also are often targets of such investigations, coaches have ample opportunities to be alone with students.

And in coaching, “historically there’s a bit of a macho attitude and girls are fair game,” McGrath said. She added that most coaches are innocent of sexual misconduct and maintain a professional relationship with students.

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At Ventura High, new Principal Hank Robertson said he does not believe there has been a pattern of such abuse by coaches or teachers.

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However, some parents and officials say they believe Kochel may have been a bad role model for younger coaches such as Hahn and Taylor.

Coach McKune dismissed that theory as “garbage,” but said in any event the district’s message to teachers and coaches about dating students now is clear: It won’t be tolerated.

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“They’ve seen what happened to Harvey,” he said. “They’ve seen what happened to Dale.”

And they see what is happening to Taylor. The hearing to determine whether Taylor will be fired begins Sept. 12.

Even people who fear the district may be going too far in disciplining Taylor say they welcome the district’s iron-fisted approach to teachers accused of preying on students.

“We’re housecleaning,” Ward said. “We’re getting rid of that stuff. We’re saying these teachers cannot do this to our students any longer. We’re not going to accept it.”

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