Closer Scrutiny : Recent Cases of Alleged Sexual Misconductr May Prompt County Coaches to Polish Up a Tarnished Image

Times Staff Writer

The stories are so abominable they defy comprehension, so shocking they resist belief. And yet, so frequent they demand attention.

Consider:

--Mark Schuster, respected Corona del Mar High football coach, was recently accused by police of having unlawful sex with his 18-year-old stepdaughter. Officers confiscated photographs from Schuster's home showing the girl topless and in a G-string. He has been charged with 16 felony counts of unlawful sexual intercourse and one felony count of oral copulation. Schuster, who will be arraigned in Orange County Superior Court Nov. 2, has proclaimed his innocence.

--Rich Prospero, former Santa Ana Valley basketball coach, is scheduled to be arraigned today on charges he had sex with a 16-year-old student and embezzled nearly $8,000 from a sports booster club. He has pleaded not guilty.

--Cory Colbert, former assistant baseball coach at Ocean View High, was found by a police officer partially clad in a car with a 15-year-old girl last year. Colbert, 24, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual intercourse and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.

In the wake of these incidents in the last 18 months, the high school athletic community is grappling with the issue of sexual misconduct by coaches. In interviews last week, Orange County athletic administrators, coaches, athletes and parents gave a variety of opinions about the prevalence of the allegations. Most concurred there is a need for awareness.

"Anything like that should be totally blown out of proportion--let everyone know about it," Servite football player Dan Levesque said. "It's the worst thing you could do to another human being."

In the 1994-95 fiscal year, the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing took disciplinary action against 68 credentialed educators after receiving allegations of sexual abuse. The allegations ranged from non-criminal touching of a child to child molestation and statutory rape. The commission meted out punishments that ranged from private admonishments to revocation of licenses.

If criminal charges are brought against a credentialed educator, the commission is notified and the teacher's license is automatically suspended until the educator is convicted or acquitted. Even if the criminal charges are dismissed, the commission can still revoke an educator's credential.

The number of educators who were punished for sexual abuse in the state last year by the commission represents a small percentage, .03%, of all credentialed teachers and administrators. Further, just a fraction of that percentage involved coaches.

But the question is, how many cases of abuse are too many?

"I think they are taken as isolated instances, but they should be taken in more high regard," said Alessio Smith, a Cal State Fullerton freshman soccer player and 1995 graduate of Newport Harbor High. "They shouldn't blow it off as just another case."

Beyond Orange County, several cases involving coaches have received widespread publicity in recent years.

Ventura High's Harvey Kochel, the most successful football coach in school history, served a year in state prison after pleading guilty in 1992 to having a seven-month sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student.

The victims of some coaches' sexual abuse also have included boys.

In Hemet, former football coach Randy Brown told players that a botched vasectomy ruined his sex life and he coerced them to have sex with his wife, Kelly Brown, to salvage his marriage and help the team. Under a plea bargain, Brown gave up his teaching credential, the couple was given five years probation and ordered to register as sex offenders.

Bill Christiansen, Laguna Beach girls' volleyball coach, said that when he was a player at Laguna Beach more than 20 years ago, a male coach from another school approached him and asked him on a date. Christiansen declined the invitation and never reported the incident and declined to name the coach or school.

Officials say it is impossible to know how many high school coaches violate their special position of trust with young people.

"I think the whole nature of pedophilia [adults who have a consistent sexual interest in children] is so scary because every time it does surface in the paper, you hear about how widespread it really is and I think parents have a right to be concerned," said Rob O'Rear, athletic director and girls' volleyball coach at San Clemente High. "I don't honestly know what the answer is to keep those people away from the kids 100%. There is no litmus test to say, 'This is a pedophile, this is not a pedophile.' "

A Black Eye

Coaches across the county said they felt tainted by the recent allegations against a few of their colleagues.

"I feel personally like it is very negative thing for our profession," said John Barnes, football coach and athletic director at Los Alamitos. "Every time you see [reports of misconduct] you just feel like everybody in the profession is probably looked at a little bit differently."

Cal State Fullerton's Smith agreed.

"Now you're going to see kids looking at coaches in different ways. In pregame pep talks, they'll look at him and ask, 'Could this guy be a molester?' I wouldn't make it obvious, but I would ask that question to myself," Smith said. "It scares me that people like this can get into our high schools."

There is no evidence to suggest that sex crimes against children are committed by coaches more than any other segment of the population. There are 65,000 registered sex offenders in California, including about 30,000 to 35,000 child molesters, and they come from all walks of life.

Paul Orris, basketball coach at Corona del Mar, said coaches are no different than any other professionals.

"We're people. There isn't anything different about coaches than anyone else. . . . We eat. We sleep. We're human beings. And be that as it may, people are going to have individual problems," he said.

But because of the nature of coaches' jobs, many say coaches should be held to a higher standard.

"[Coaches] are in a position more than, say, a math teacher, to be a hero, and it is a lot of these traits of being a hero or a God to the young girl that makes [the girl] more vulnerable," said Ventura Deputy Dist. Atty. Saundra T. Brewer, who prosecuted Kochel. "If he doesn't have any scruples, that's it."

Only by completing comprehensive background checks and consulting references can athletic directors be somewhat sure that the people they hire are scrupulous.

Los Amigos Athletic Director Dave Auxier recalled one coach who almost slipped through the cracks.

"I hired a. . . coach a couple years ago and [the school district] terminated him on the spot. They found out he had a record. Lewd conduct," Auxier said.

The Rumor Mill

Court documents and testimony at Kochel's sentencing hearing revealed that female students had complained about his sexual advances for more than 10 years, but no serious disciplinary action was ever taken against him.

"I think it does happen more often than what people read about in the paper," said Andy Koopman, El Modena girls' volleyball coach. Jim Perry, La Quinta athletic director, has investigated two misconduct rumors in his 14 years at the school. He said he took disciplinary action in one of the cases, and determined that the other was unfounded.

"It's less and less of a hazard as coaches get older," Auxier said. "When you're younger, there are a lot of girls that will look your way. I try to keep a pulse of what's going around the school. Kids talk a lot. But we have no system and it's tough. It's a crapshoot."

Officials fear that some coaching circles operate like old boys clubs--protecting their own.

"It has been obvious that certain districts have tried to cover things up to protect their own reputation instead of protecting kids against these kind of predators," said Dianne Genduso, Esperanza girls' athletic director.

Angie Padilla, co-president of Santa Ana Valley's Teachers and Parents United organization, has confidence in the school administration despite the incident at her school involving Prospero.

"This [arrest] is something that happened. It cannot be undone, but I believe it was handled professionally and very well by [administrators]. I am not aware of the details [of the charges]. I'm not sure I should be made aware of the details. We need to forge ahead," she said.

But Los Alamitos' Barnes said people need to be aware.

"When I was a kid, it probably would have been easier to get away with [misconduct] because the public didn't want to hear it or see it then. If you had a bad coach, teacher, policeman, priest or minister, nobody wanted to hear about it. But nowadays. . . the media is on top of it and I am for [media coverage], because I think if these kinds of things are exposed, they get everybody thinking and keep everybody's acts clean."

Taking Precautions

Fearing potential lawsuits, coaches said they are taking greater precautions to guard against false accusations.

School districts can fire teachers for behavior that includes pinching the buttocks or touching the thigh of a female student.

"Even a rumor could hurt you immensely," Koopman said. "I think it changes your style a little bit. You have to be more careful with comments you make or a slap on the back. Sometimes you want to give them a pat and you have to be careful. It is in the back of every coach's mind."

In August, San Clemente's O'Rear took his varsity girls' volleyball team on a camping trip for a weekend of conditioning and bonding. He brought two adult, female chaperons who were mothers of players.

"It's just a smart thing to do. There is nothing to hide," O'Rear said. "I don't know if that is just common sense or I am just cautious or maybe there is a little worry in there. It's just part of the way I look at things now."

Len Whitacre, beginning his second year as girls' basketball coach at Costa Mesa, said he believes it is OK to hug players, as long as players are comfortable with it.

"The first day, I told them I hug only one way--side to side," he said. "I want them to know that I care about them, that they're important to me. But I don't embrace because of this very issue. It's an issue we all have to be sensitive to. That's the only touching I do. I don't pat people on the rear-end. That's it. And if a player says to me, 'I don't like to be hugged,' I don't hug."

Koo Kim, a junior on the Costa Mesa girls' basketball team, said that she is comfortable with Whitacre's behavior, but there still is a fine line that coaches have to walk.

"A lot of coaches are afraid of hugging, especially if they're the opposite sex, because a lot of girls do feel uncomfortable. [Whitacre] respects that."

Teaching Awareness

Shandy Robbins, a 1995 graduate from Marina now playing basketball at the University of Oregon, said most of the information athletes get about how to deal with inappropriate advances is gathered informally.

"It's mostly understood," she said. "Our knowledge comes from what we've seen in the news. We're just thinking, 'That's not going to happen to us.' I'm sure that's what everyone thinks."

Basketball player Kiyoko Miller had three different male coaches in three years at Brea Olinda before transferring over the summer to Cerritos Valley Christian, where she'll play for her first female coach, Eleanor Dykstra.

Miller said she would have no tolerance for inappropriate behavior from a coach.

"I would tell him, 'No, that's not right,' " she said. "He's an adult. He should know. That's crossing that line. I would tell my parents, my principal. I would tell whoever I have to tell because that's wrong. I would put that person through heck. If that person is sick enough to do that, he could keep bothering you or he could go on to someone else.

"If I just say no [and don't tell anyone else], what happens if he moves on to the next person?"

Heather Bell, parent of a three-sport male athlete at Irvine High and president of the Irvine Booster Club, said that parents should be in communication with coaches.

"You should look at the athletic department and see, are they approachable people? Do you feel comfortable around them?" she said.

Athletic directors said they would have no tolerance for sexual misconduct.

"Our policy toward inappropriate sexual behavior is immediate firing, on the spot," Esperanza's Genduso said. "Our district would pursue that to the fullest extent of the law. It does no good if you pass the problem on to another district. I wouldn't even tolerate a rumor. It would be dealt with harshly and swiftly."

Perry said all coaching applicants at La Quinta must give their fingerprints and driver's license information. He once found an applicant in violation of his parole. Another had a firearms charge.

Staff members at La Quinta also must sign a code of conduct statement in which they promise not to date or fraternize with students.

Parents said that the best method of prevention is to keep communication lines open.

"Too many parents don't talk to their kids," Bell said. "You can always get more information out of kids. They know what's going on."

Although coaches have drawn much attention recently, the problem of sexual abuse of children is society-wide.

"It's happening in all professions, and it is something we have to be concerned about, something you have to be alert about all the time," said Ron Hampton, Brea Olinda athletic director.

"It behooves us to protect our children. It is an on-going and continuing problem. This time, education is taking the rap for it. Tomorrow, who knows?"

Times staff writers Martin Henderson, Dave McKibben and Paul McLeod contributed to this story.

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