When Districts ‘Fire’ Coaches, They Often Keep Them on as Teachers

Education

When Districts ‘Fire’ Coaches, They Often Keep Them on as Teachers

Across the region, school administrators have fired coaches after finding they acted inappropriately or abused their roles as student mentors, while retaining them as teachers and leaving them accessible to students.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

When the Coronado Unified School District fired JD Laaperi as Coronado High School’s head basketball coach following an incident in which team supporters threw tortillas at an opposing team, it retained him in another capacity: as a teacher at Silver Strand Elementary School.

Groups that called for Laaperi’s firing were largely unaware that he also teaches at the district and will remain in that role despite his move off the basketball court, and now doubt whether the district is holding him fully accountable for the incident.

David Cruz, a spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens, told Voice of San Diego that it seems disingenuous to say Laaperi was “fired” if he only lost one of his jobs with the same employer.

“It’s an interesting use of semantics,” he said.

The Coronado school board isn’t alone in its decision to fire Laaperi in one capacity and keep him on staff in another. Across the region, school administrators have fired coaches after finding they acted inappropriately or abused their roles as student mentors, while retaining them as teachers and leaving them accessible to students, a Voice of San Diego review found. Though Laaperi isn’t accused of abusing students, coaches in other roles have been found to have crossed boundaries with players but continued working directly with students in the classroom.

Firing an employee from as a coach is easier than firing them as a teacher, because employee union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements afford teachers due process rights that aren’t extended to coaches. It’s rare that schools move to show probable cause to terminate an employee, Voice of San Diego has found. Yet a school board can choose not to renew a coach’s annual supplemental contract without a stated reason if they are at-will employees.

Experts on students’ rights told Voice of San Diego that school districts are leaving the door open to legal action when they continue to employ staff who commit misconduct in any role on campus. They said districts can be proactive by firing employees from all roles regardless of where they commit misconduct, complete diligent background checks on all coaches and hire more women and people of color as coaches to prevent harassment in the first place.

Karl Muller, the superintendent of Coronado Unified, and Laaperi declined interview requests for this story.

San Diego School Boards Are Quicker to Fire Coaches Than Teachers

Athletic coaches who are also teachers perform their duties as coaches in an adjunct capacity, meaning they are hired as a teacher first, and a coach second. They’re paid an additional stipend for coaching, on top of their regular teacher’s salary. Often, teachers who coach, like Laaperi, go through a higher level of background checks in those roles, but school officials are less likely to move to fire them.

Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Office of Education, confirmed districts can relieve employees of their coaching responsibilities without it affecting their teaching jobs.

A similar situation played out in Poway in 2017. Officials at Poway Unified found that two coaches sent inappropriate texts to female students and removed them from coaching roles, but retained them as teachers. That district completed investigations into the employees’ cases, and determined the teachers’ actions were “inappropriate or unprofessional, but not criminal or warranting termination.”

Community members demand the district fire the men from their teaching roles in both cases, but district officials refused.

“We believe the level of discipline they received was appropriate for these first instances. They were removed from coaching positions and received letters in their files,” Christine Paik, a spokeswoman for Poway Unified, previously wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego. “The education code has an onerous process for employee terminations. Districts are unable to dismiss employees unless their offenses rise to a certain level as described by ed code.”

After Voice of San Diego published details about both cases, a Westview High alum claimed one of the teachers, Derek Peterson, a former basketball coach, also sent her inappropriate texts while he was her English teacher. The student started an online petition demanding the district fire him and the other coach, Tim Medlock, as teachers.

Peterson resigned from the district in October 2020 before the district finished investigation the second claim, Paik told Voice of San Diego in an email. Medlock is still employed at Westview High.

The unwillingness to fully terminate employees on school campuses is concerning, said Alana McMains, an associate attorney at The Pride Law Firm in San Diego.

McMains said districts should be aware that retaining employees in one capacity after relieving them from another can have detrimental legal and financial implications. Beyond the morality of a school keeping a problem employee on staff, it presents a liability that threatens taxpayer dollars.

“If the school keeps them around kids, they’re really setting themselves up for a huge lawsuit,” McMains said. “The first thing we ask a school district is if there has been a complaint against a teacher before.”

Districts are quicker to hire and fire coaches who are considered “walk-on” or “limited term” employees, who do not hold teaching positions and are considered non-certificated employees. Those coaches receive a stipend for the season, and can be let go at any time.

Last year, Coronado district officials swiftly fired Jordan Tyler Bucklew, a former girls basketball coach, when allegations came to light that he abused one of the students on his team.

State education code requires schools to conduct background checks on all coaches whether they have a teaching role or not, and requires coaches to have some training. The local chapter of the California Interscholastic Federation offers a coaching education program that provides “a minimum level of professional training that complies” with California Education Code. The law requires prospective coaches to pass a coaching education class. The CIF offers its own program.

The San Diego County Office of Education requires its “walk-on” coaches to have fingerprint clearance, valid CPR certification and other pre-employment requirements before beginning a coaching assignment, according to its website. Watson, the San Diego County Office of Education spokeswoman, said most districts have the same requirements, but local schools make their own decisions.

Unlike with teachers, there’s not a statewide oversight board for athletic coaches in schools. School administrators are left to decide who should be around schoolchildren, unless the coach commits an egregious crime.

Watson said if a parent, student or community member is concerned about a school coach, they can contact officials at their respective school or local law enforcement.

The first step is generally to contact the site administrator (principal), although parents, students or community members can also contact the district’s human resources office. If there’s a concern about potentially illegal activity, the parent, student or community member could also contact law enforcement,” she said.

The CIF doesn’t have a say in the hiring or firing of coaches either, Joe Heinz, the commissioner of the CIF’s local chapter, said in an interview.

Heinz would not comment directly on Laaperi’s case but noted that there’s a lot of work to be done within the association moving forward.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Heinz said.

“Sports is all about creating community,” Hogshead-Maker said.

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