We can’t talk about it, said Bellingham Public Schools. Privacy laws and all. Best to just move on.
Sure, some of our young student-athletes (not particularly in that order) at Sehome High got a little woolly this fall, harassing younger teammates in a humiliating fashion that anyone with the sense God gave a goat would construe as “hazing.”
Sure, that sort of toxic culture regularly claims traumatized victims, and has been a national scourge in the world of sports and even worse, the Neanderthal-era customs of university Greek halls.
But to discuss this in any public way would violate privacy rules for all involved. Best to deal with it internally, call in the attitude coaches, cover the tracks and move on.
That was the clear message from the school district this fall, when Sehome was forced to forfeit a Sept. 16 football game while the district investigated a reported hazing incident — later verified, sans details. We now know a lot more of those details, and continue to report the story.
In the bigger picture, it was up to the school district to be accountable to the public by discussing what happened, why, and what will prevent it from happening again.
For weeks, administrators failed to do that — a subject I addressed in an Oct. 19 CDN column that urged the district to address the issue, foregoing identifications of participants, to address broad community concern. Make a public statement, I suggested, acknowledging the gravity of the offense, discussing what if any punitive measures resulted, and detailing how the larger problem will be addressed moving forward.
In response, the community got only a milquetoast letter from Superintendent Greg Baker. He acknowledged the thirst for accountability but said any further discussion would violate those hallowed student privacy laws.
Worth noting: Before and after that limp response, Cascadia Daily News heard from a range of sources, from current and former Bellingham Public Schools counselors and athletic personnel to current active coaches. Each wanted to avoid discussing the subject on the record. Each was troubled by the district’s lack of public accountability surrounding this incident. Each said a hazing culture is not (yet) predominant in the district. But each knew of other troubling incidents that left hazing a matter of ongoing concern.
Still, the district clung to its privacy shield, operating in what appears to be lawyered-up mode, fearing a lawsuit or perhaps criminal charges.
And then last week, one of the district’s own employees, Sehome Principal Sonia Cole accomplished at least some of what Baker and other district officials had described as unattainable. (Let's be clear: The communication in question would not have come without approval of these district officials; this might even qualify as their backdoor approach to being minimally transparent.)
In a Nov. 28 letter to football-program students and parents — which the district has not, but should, make public — Cole announced that the school had accepted the resignation of six-year football coach Kevin Beason, a Sehome and Western Washington University alum. She connected his departure to the event and broader issues of team culture.
She laid out the September events in a bit more detail, noting that Bellingham Schools was contacted on Sept. 14 “by an administrator outside the district” about a potential hazing incident, leading to the Sept. 16 forfeiture.
She said the investigation included interviews with students, families and coaches, verifying violations of district conduct rules on hazing. She also said this (emphasis mine):
“It was also found that this is not a new issue; this type of behavior has been experienced by and perpetuated by Sehome football student athletes for years. It was made clear to athletes that this behavior is hazing and needed to stop immediately. In addition, it was clear that our team had a need to learn about hazing, power dynamics, and clear steps on building a positive team culture.”
The team, she noted, underwent six weeks of lessons addressing these issues — a requirement for students to participate in games.
“This learning is the most important thing,” Cole said in the letter. “Before the week 10 game, in our learning time together we emphasized having good sportsmanship and having no personal fouls for game 10 as this has been an ongoing issue in previous games. This continued to be a struggle for this group, and it is something we will continue to address moving into next year.”
Pretty low bar: a reduction in unsportsmanlike conduct, which apparently had become a team trademark.
In the long run, Cole concluded: “We know that we can have a positive team culture, but we also know that it will take continued intentional work to make this happen.”
That’s an atypical degree of candor in a statement about not renewing the contract of an embattled football coach.
While the apparent failure to reprimand any students remains concerning here, the public message is clear: The coach fostered this atmosphere; it’s unacceptable; and it will be stopped.
One: Some credit here to Principal Cole, showing some leadership that many in her shoes have found difficult to muster in dealing with parental pressure and athletics. Cole did not respond to a CDN request for comment. But even if her statement was the work of higher-ups, she at least had the guts to put her name to it, making her the only district employee to do so. And there is every indication she aggressively pursued the initial hazing report.
Beason, in a Facebook post, complained that he’d been given an “ultimatum” by Cole to resign or have his contract terminated. Well, such is life in the Great Northwest, as my own football coach used to say. You reap what you sow, and our reporting indicates plenty was sown here.
Two, an honest question for Bellingham Public schools administration: Was that really so difficult? Perhaps as lifetime learners, you might take a lesson here from one of your own.
Ron Judd's column appears on Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: roncjudd.