Saturday, June 23, 2007

Dirtbag track coach preys on teenager...then marries her

Before I get rolling on this, it's time for some full disclosure. I coach basketball...high school girls basketball. For a number of reasons every time I see a story like this I get really pissed off:

The Hagers are trying to figure out how life went off track for their teenage daughter, Windy.

They envisioned that life for the good student and promising athlete would be filled with dreams of the prom and college, but that all changed this week when Windy, 16, married her high school track coach.

At South Brunswick High School in North Carolina, Windy's greatest passion was track and field. But that passion led her down a troubling path.

During Windy's freshman year, her 38-year-old track coach, Brenton Wuchae, began taking a more active interest in her, offering to give the 14-year-old rides home from practice.

Windy with her new predator husband

The first warning to parents: A coach should never offer to give your kid a ride home. Certainly never by matter how "trustworthy" the coach is. I do my best to arrange rides with other parents or students for my players...and in the occasions when I need to give kids rides, there are always at least two of them in my car at all times.

Adult coaches need to hold themselves completely above reproach at all times...especially in a high school setting. High school kids talk. A female athlete is seen leaving campus alone with a coach...and kids will spread rumors. It's just not smart.

"He just seemed like a genuine guy, like he was there for the kids," said Windy's father, Dennis Hager.But the Hagers eventually grew uneasy. Their phone bills showed text messages between Wuchae and Windy as late as 2 a.m.

OK, there's your next clue. Except for my team captains (who are in charge of reaching the other kids for confirmation of practice times, etc.) I don't have my players' phone numbers in my phone. If I need to reach them, I try to call the parents...or I send email's with the parents cc'd on everything. I also don't take IM's from my players...ever.

The 2 a.m. text-messages should have been enough for the school to instantly fire Wuchae and begin a criminal investigation. But the school passed the buck:

The Hagers confronted Wuchae. "He assured me there was nothing like that going on, [and that] they were just friends. His intentions were purely appropriate," Dennis said.

Not satisfied with that answer, the Hagers turned to the school district, which spoke to the coach.

The principal of the high school wrote to the Hagers, "I have seen nothing but a cooperative attitude from the teacher, and to the best of my knowledge, he has not had any contact with Windy since then."

What a load of crap. You have a coach contacting a player at 2am! That right there is all you need to know something completely inappropriate is occurring. But the school district did nothing.

One more thing. I make sure my players understand this from DAY ONE: I am their coach. Not their father-figure, big brother or friend. I am 42 years old...if I ever described a relationship with a player as a "friendship", that should instantly disqualify me from a position of authority (teacher, coach, pastor etc.) with teenagers.

The Hagers contacted police; they even tried to get a restraining order.

"We've tried everybody. We've been to the law. We've been to the school board," Betty said. "Our family has come and tried to talk to her. We've had people on the phone with her for hours — family, friends. We've been to our pastor asking for guidance. We've been to his pastor."

Meanwhile, the Hagers say Windy withdrew, refusing to speak to them until she asked them to sign a consent form so that she and her coach — a man more than twice her age — could get married.

Although anguished, her weary parents gave in.

Monday, Windy and Wuchae married, and he resigned from the school.

This is a clear case of a sick adult preying on kids. Maybe he thinks he is in love with this girl, but I guarantee you that Wuchae was calculating in his manipulation of Windy. 14-16 year olds are highly impressionable and I sure Windy was both flattered and overwhelmed by the attention he gave her.

This girl has had her youth stolen from her. Unfortunately she won't realize that until a few years have passed and she realizes that she married a man who took advantage of her youth. And since Wuchae certainly appears to have a proclivity for preying on teenagers, it shouldn't surprise anyone if he ends up repeating this behavior.

I don't mean to frighten or discourage parents of kids involved in sports, but this stuff happens all the time. Certainly 99% of all youth coaches are involved for all the right reasons, but unfortunately this type of indiscretion occurs much more than is reported in the media.

The following is a story reprinted from the San Diego Union-Tribune (no link because it is archived from 2001 and you need a password to access it), involving a local girls basketball coach who took one of his players to Mexico for 10 days:

EL CAJON -- The West Hills High School girl who ran away to Mexico with a volunteer basketball coach last fall has filed suit against the coach and Grossmont Unified High School District.

The suit by student Chelsea Olayan and her mother, Anita Miller, contends that the district was negligent because it failed to supervise the coach, Jeffrey Gagne.

In September, Gagne, a 43-year-old married father of two, fled to Mexico with Olayan, then 16. They were missing for six days before returning to the United States, where Gagne was arrested at the San Ysidro international border crossing.

He was sentenced in December to nine months in jail after pleading no contest to one count of child abduction and one count of sexual contact with a minor. Although a no-contest plea technically does not admit guilt, it is recorded as a criminal conviction.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in El Cajon Superior Court, contends that school officials were on notice about Gagne's "sexual misconduct and inappropriate sexual behavior" with female athletes. The suit said the district received complaints about Gagne in 1998 from a student and her mother.

The suit also says that, in 1999, two West Hills basketball coaches learned from several parents that their children felt uncomfortable around Gagne because his behavior at times was inappropriate and "too intimate."

The suit does not specify the amount of money damages sought. In December, however, the school board rejected a claim -- a precursor to a lawsuit -- from Miller that sought $1 million in damages.

The superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District reacted with dismay to the lawsuit.

"This case is really a matter that involves individual responsibility," said Superintendent Granger Ward. "The conduct of Mr. Gagne was inappropriate. He admitted to his guilt and served time as a result.

"It is unfair to attempt to shift the blame to the district for this criminal misconduct by Mr. Gagne. Unfortunately, this case appears to be a matter of attempting to go after deep pockets."

While it might be true that Olayan and Miller might have been trying to make a little coin off the school district, the lesson for parents is this: Don't rely on a school district to take accountability. Coaches generally are required to go through the FBI background check and get fingerprinted, but parents should still watch out for the signs that were so evident in the Windy Hager case. Be diligent and insist on this from coaches who instruct your kids:

1. No one-on-one interaction with players away from the field or court of play. Any talks with players can be done in front of parents, other coaches, or team captains.

2. Set and adhere to guidelines for contacting players outside of games or practice. No late night private phone calls or emails.

3. Be aware of coaches who buy players gifts or write personal "encouraging" notes. I once knew a youth baseball coach who bought one of his kids a poster of his favorite major league player. Four months later, that coach was arrested for molesting that kid. Which leads me to my next point:

4. Don't assume that just because the coach is the same gender as your kid or is married, that you can relax your standards.

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