Ethics Data Online - Articles

"Misconduct often goes unpunished by districts"
Christine Willmsen and Maureen O'Hagan, Seattle Times staff reporters
Sunday, December 15, 2003

When a friend told coach Stu Gorski in 1995 that Mount Adams School District had hired "a phenomenal wrestling coach," Gorski froze.

"Tell me you didn't hire Randy Deming," he pleaded.

The district had.

Gorski, a football and golf coach in Whatcom County, knew Deming for years as a rival coach at nearby Blaine High School. Gorski also knew of Deming's reputation as a groper of girls who had even been charged with child molestation.

When Gorski learned Deming would also be teaching girls, he warned: "You're putting him back into the fire."

But the Mount Adams district, in Yakima County, seemed less interested in court records and more in Deming's wrestling record. As one of the most successful coaches in the state, he had a résumé that seemed to shield him from two decades of sexual-misconduct complaints.

Gorski had tried to warn people about Deming, the 1990 Class A Washington state coach of the year. "I even wrote a letter to the Mount Adams School Board," said Gorski, "but never got a reply."

The treatment of Deming is not unusual. In a yearlong investigation, The Seattle Times found that 159 Washington coaches have been reprimanded or fired in the past decade because of sexual misconduct. As with Deming, at least 98 of them continued coaching or teaching afterward.

"I'll be honest, most schools don't follow a code of ethics for their coaches," said Tim Flannery, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "They wait for the crisis and scramble to decide how to deal with it."

The Times' investigation found that school administrators often conduct cursory inquiries of sexual-misconduct complaints against coaches and rarely alert police to complaints of sexual abuse — despite a Washington law that says they must do so within 48 hours.

Even when school officials find wrongdoing, they often bow to pressure from the teachers union, handing out mild punishments or none at all.

Districts routinely keep investigations secret by failing to document them or by signing agreements with accused coaches promising not to tell. In fact, the Times found 29 coaches who were passed
on to new school districts after being disciplined, pushed out or fired for sexual misconduct.

As a profession, coaching has among the highest rates of sexual-misconduct complaints, experts say.

(The Times did not examine private-school coaches because their school files are not public.)
Winning coaches such as Deming often get second and third chances while continuing to victimize girls.

As one former student of Deming's said in a lawsuit against the Blaine School District: "There is no doubt in my mind that had it not been for his record as a wrestling coach, his conduct would not have been tolerated for long and he would not have had the opportunity to molest me."


Championships clouded the town's opinion of Blaine's wrestling coach

There were problems from the start with James "Randy" Deming. Shortly after he started his career with the Blaine School District in 1974 as a high-school coach and elementary gym teacher, students and parents began complaining.

"My little girl, who was only 7, wouldn't go to school on gym days," recalled Janice Staheli, who now lives in Bellevue.

Her daughter, Kim Staheli Louch, who grew up to be valedictorian, traced her avoidance to the day she was stretching in her elementary physical-education class and Deming poked his finger in her crotch.

"It's not a secret that he was touching girls all the time," said Staheli Louch, who agreed to be named by The Times. He demanded kisses before allowing them to leave class for the restroom, she said.

Neither Deming nor his lawyer responded to a reporter's phone calls and letters.

By the late 1970s, Deming had established a top-notch wrestling program at Blaine High School that would bring pride to the border town.

But complaints kept coming. Staheli and half a dozen other mothers complained en masse to the School Board that the coach had groped girls. "They were just stony-faced," Staheli recalled of the elected officials. "They were all sports jocks. They said these complaints were ridiculous. He was a fine person and we were a bunch of women's libbers."

Deming continued to offend, his file shows. In 1985, the district reprimanded him after he admitted asking a girl at the school if she had any nude photos of herself. Two weeks later, he was reprimanded for massaging a girl in the boys locker room.

In 1987, Deming was investigated by police for touching a 10-year-old near her genitals, but no charges were filed.

Superintendent Robert Gilden wrote to him later that year: "Based on your employment history at Blaine, it is apparent that something is seriously wrong."

But Deming kept his job, in large part because he was a local coaching hero, parents and victims said. During his career, Deming took the Blaine wrestlers — the Borderites — to 14 league championships, 10 district championships, seven regional championships and a state title.
In 1990 — the same year he won state coach-of-the-year honors — Deming was charged with first-degree child molestation after another 10-year-old reported that he rubbed her breasts and touched her near her genitals.

District officials suspended the coach, and the town revolted.

"He was a big celebrity up in Blaine," said James Hoogestraat, a lawyer representing the 10-year-old victim in an ongoing lawsuit against the district. "People circulated petitions asking that the school not terminate him."

Deming kept his job until March 1991, when Whatcom County Deputy Prosecutor Mac Setter offered a deal: Setter would dismiss charges if Deming resigned and never taught again.

Charges were dropped, and Deming resigned. But it didn't take long before he was teaching again.
But first, the district told the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) about his misconduct. Districts are required to do this when they possess "sufficient information to believe an employee is not of good moral character or has committed an act of unprofessional conduct."
In forwarding the Deming complaint, Blaine was doing more than other districts, which often keep even serious complaints in-house, never putting a teacher's license at risk. In an examination of 10 of the state's largest districts, The Times found 18 cases of serious sexual misconduct that were not reported to the OSPI.

But Blaine had to pay a price. Deming said that the district, in exchange for his resigning, had promised not to reveal his misconduct to anyone, which he argued also included the OSPI.

So Deming sued the district for informing the state and interfering with his chances of landing a new job. Blaine paid Deming $27,500 to drop his lawsuit.

As it turned out, Deming's job prospects were hardly dim.

"Put a résumé out there that says you won more wrestling matches than any other coach in the state, you're going to get a job," said Gorski, his old coaching rival. "There is always someone who is willing to overlook certain kinds of things."

Enter Mount Adams' White Swan High School, which wanted a top wrestling coach and hired Deming in 1995 despite his background.

Deming didn't change his troublesome conduct. Girls there complained of unwanted touching. Mount Adams officials disciplined him five times in the past two school years.

Last March, Deming was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation after allegedly touching two eighth-grade girls in his math class. During his May trial, Yakima County jurors heard that Deming's classroom was a chaotic place where students watched "The Maury Povich Show" on television while Deming wrestled with kids and demeaned girls.

"He would tell us that girls are useless and the only thing they're supposed to do was stay home," one girl testified.

The girls said he repeatedly grabbed their shoulders, legs, necks or midsections, pinching and squeezing. One said he put her in a "choker hold" and she had to bite him to get away.

On the stand, Deming didn't deny many of their accounts but gave a positive spin. He said he didn't squeeze girls repeatedly or too hard, that his comments about girls were intended to encourage them to get an education, and that nothing he did was inappropriate.

He said the girls were giving him "payback" because he had disciplined them.
Jurors never heard of his misconduct in Blaine because in criminal cases a defendant's prior conduct can't be used against him except in rare circumstances.

After a three-day trial, jurors decided the coach's conduct was not criminal assault and acquitted him.

Meanwhile, Mount Adams gave Deming notice that he was going to be fired. He is appealing that decision and is on paid leave.


Districts are likely to settle with abusers rather than wage a costly fight

Why should it be so hard to fire a public-school coach who preys on kids?

One problem is that administrators aren't trained to investigate sexual abuse, yet they — not qualified social workers or detectives — are the ones doing the investigating. As a result, school officials miss warning signs or ignore complaints altogether.

Also, districts do not always document discipline. Seattle school officials, for instance, avoid "papering the file" and give oral instead of written reprimands, Ava Greene Davenport, a district administrator, testified in an open-records lawsuit involving The Times.

Many school officials believe they can do little to keep a coach in line because the teachers union will strenuously fight any discipline. Half of school coaches are also teachers and represented by the Washington Education Association (WEA).

If districts do create a paper trail, teachers have a right under most district contracts to have information removed from their files, including misconduct complaints, after a few years. Over time, a coach who teaches can get a second or third chance, despite repeated complaints. Even when schools can prove serious misconduct, firing a teacher can be costly and drawn-out, district attorneys say.

Once a school decides to discipline, suspend or fire him, a teacher-coach has a right to a hearing before a state administrative-law judge — a process that can take months. Meanwhile he is put on leave, collecting pay, while the district pays a substitute as well. And if the district loses its case, it has to pay the coach's lawyer, usually supplied by the WEA.

As a result, school districts weigh the costs and often decide an easier course is getting the coach to resign with a cash settlement. A typical discharge case costs about $100,000, including paid leave, attorney fees and other costs, said Rocky Jackson, a Yakima attorney who has represented many school districts over the past 20 years.

School districts "get into settlement mode because of the cost," Jackson said. "That may not be the best thing, but that's what happens."


School districts often tell potential employers nothing about a coach's past

Luke "Turk" Markishtum, 68, is a prime example. From 1975, when he was hired by the Seattle School District, until 1997, when he finally was pushed out as a teacher and coach, he seemed to play by his own set of rules.

According to two decades of complaints in Markishtum's personnel file, he groped and kissed girls at American Indian Heritage Secondary, bought beer for athletes, falsified their grades so they'd be eligible to play, had sex with his girlfriend on campus and hugged his female students and had them sit on his lap.

Yet nothing happened. No one called police or notified the state of misconduct.
"He feels that he is different and the rules don't apply to him," athletic director Barbara Twardus later told an investigator.

Finally, in 1995, a student said that on her 16th birthday, he grabbed her by the shirt and pulled her toward him so he could kiss her. When Principal Robert Eaglestaff found out, he did nothing, records show.

But a counselor persisted, forcing the school district to hire an investigator, who found another problem. In 1981, during the two years he left Seattle and worked for the Port Angeles School District, Markishtum made newspaper headlines when he was arrested for trying to smuggle six tons of marijuana into the state.

Markishtum made a deal with prosecutors to testify against the supplier. The supplier went to prison; Markishtum went back to the Seattle district.

Nothing in his personnel file indicates the district checked his background before rehiring him.
Markishtum declined to talk about the marijuana case and denied all of the other allegations. In his opinion, he was the victim of a conspiracy by people at the school.

By October 1996, the Seattle School District wanted to fire him but instead signed an agreement: In exchange for Markishtum's resignation, the district would pay him the remainder of his year's salary, an additional $69,000, and keep his record secret from future employers.

The Times found many school districts, including Franklin Pierce, Edmonds and Tacoma, made similar deals, though terms varied.

Even without a secrecy agreement, many school officials say they won't tell the truth about a coach's record because they fear a lawsuit.

Mike Patterson, a lawyer who has represented Seattle and other area districts, said he tells school officials not to discuss a teacher's misconduct when prospective employers call for reference checks. As a result, public schools, which face a shortage of experienced coaches and teachers, have a hard time weeding out unfit candidates.

So it should be no surprise that Markishtum, despite a checkered past, was hired by the North Kitsap School District in 2000.

When contacted in October, North Kitsap spokesman Chris Case said, "This is the first time I've heard this information."


One investigation took 20 minutes before a coach was allowed to continue

Apart from financial considerations, school administrators sometimes harbor another, deeply ingrained reason for not tackling sexual misconduct: fear of making themselves and their schools look bad and upsetting their communities.

Stephen Rubin, chairman of the psychology department at Whitman College and co-author of "Teachers That Sexually Abuse Students," said sex abuse is disturbing and school officials don't want to face it. Their denial is "like the ostrich sticking its head in the ground."

That's what happened in Grant County with the Royal School District, which focused more on winning the big game than on a student's safety, according to a 2002 lawsuit.

In September 2000, teacher Steve Diaz, 25, came to Royal with a reputation as a winning basketball coach, having just taken the Highland High School boys team to the state tournament. But he and other coaches were fired from the Yakima-area school after complaints were made that they went hot tubbing with cheerleaders who had just graduated, records show.

Royal school officials said they knew of the hot-tub incident but hired him anyway to teach middle school and coach high school, in part because of his tournament success.

Six months into Diaz's first year at Royal Middle School, three students were worried when their 13-year-old friend came out of Diaz's classroom with her face rubbed red. She said that it was whisker burn from Diaz kissing her and that she had a crush on the coach.

Her concerned friends told two teachers, who alerted the principal, records show.

The timing was bad for the girls and good for Diaz. It was Feb. 23, 2001, the day of a crucial basketball game that, if Royal won, would put it in the state tournament. And many believed that Diaz, as coach, needed to be there.

Despite the serious allegation, Diaz wasn't removed from the classroom nor put on administrative leave, which is standard procedure. Neither the principal nor other officials reported the complaint to the police or the state superintendent.

Steve Diaz took the Highland High boys basketball team to the state tournament in 2000, but a year later at Royal Middle School he ran into trouble. Diaz was charged with eight sex crimes and pleaded guilty to one count of assault with sexual motivation.

Instead, athletic director Preston "Kent" Andersen conducted his own investigation — later testifying that, like many school administrators, he had no experience investigating sexual abuse.
The investigation lasted less than 20 minutes, Andersen later testified. He took no notes and asked few questions. Not surprisingly, he found no evidence of wrongdoing. And by 3 p.m., Diaz was cleared to coach the evening's big game.

In all, Diaz and the girl met in his classroom for sexual foreplay four times, according to a police report. The last time, on March 30, 2001, Diaz went much further, forcing the 13-year-old to give him oral sex, according to the report. At that point, she realized that Diaz didn't love her, as she had thought.

"I was just disgusted by everything," the girl later testified. "I was crying and I stood up and he didn't even say anything to me."

In an e-mail, the girl told a friend in detail what happened, and the friend's mother gave the correspondence to school officials.

But even with the e-mail in hand, no one called Child Protective Services or filed a police report. Nor did anyone call the girl's parents until almost a week later, according to testimony in a lawsuit brought by the family.

Instead, the superintendent called the district's risk-management company. It sent an investigator, who questioned the girl over two days. One of those days, school officials bumped into a police officer in the school parking lot, and only then did police get involved. Diaz was charged with eight sex crimes and pleaded guilty in December 2001 to one count of assault with sexual motivation.

Rubin, the psychology professor, has seen this story before. "The real mistake by the school systems is they don't address this as a serious problem," he said.
"They wait until someone sues them, or until a parent comes in and says, 'My little girl was raped.'"