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Coach resigned under pressure

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Nearly a year after Vince Peters resigned as a coach for Yellow Springs schools in March 2014, a local complaint has made public the circumstances of his departure. Though he did not return calls for comment last spring, his school personnel record now shows that Peters, 60, resigned last March under threat of termination due to a series of communications he had with a female athlete at Yellow Springs High School that was deemed inappropriate by both the school administration and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).

The local schools received a complaint from a community member in the winter of 2014 and conducted an investigation of allegations that between November 2013 and March 2014 Peters had regular inappropriate contact with a student. The district concluded that the complaint was founded, Peters admitted to the charges, and after coaching with the school for 32 years, agreed to resign his positions as coach of the cross country team, girls track team and assistant bus driver.

As required by the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) in the case of “conduct unbecoming to the … person’s position” as coach, the district reported its findings to both the Yellow Springs Police and to the Ohio Department of Education. Following its own investigation, in June the State Board of Education entered into a consent agreement with Peters to have his three-year pupil activity permit suspended through June 30, 2016, during which time he is prohibited from engaging in any permit-required coaching or educational activities in Ohio, and to refrain from applying for future educational permits with the ODE.

According to ODE spokesman John Charleton this month, states share information on a national database, which would prevent an offender from obtaining an educational permit in any other state as well. Though private schools and organizations generally don’t require staff to hold public permits, the information about those who have been barred as public educators is widely accessible and should be checked before any private hire as well, he said.

While the information was reported to the local police, according to Police Chief Dave Hale this month, because none of Peters’ actions constitute a criminal offense, there was no follow-up from law enforcement other than to take a report.

Troubled by relationship
The relationship between Peters and the student began during the fall cross country season. According to the school’s investigation, the inappropriate contact included late night and weekend texting initiated by Peters about personal topics such as the school dance, vacation plans, rides to and from practice and invitations to run together (without other teammates and outside of school organized events). The two ran alone together twice, according to the school’s investigation. The contact also involved Peters sharing some of his original poetry with the student, one of which contained sexual references regarding a woman’s body while running.

According to Peters, reached at home in Chicago last week, he had no intention of causing harm.

“I’m extremely sorry that a lapse in judgment resulted in a high school senior reading inappropriate material. It was wrong because a coach’s job, like a parent’s, is to shelter their charges from what is harmful,” he wrote in an email this week. “I requested last April that my apologies be extended to the student when I resigned. I publicly apologize now to the Yellow Springs community and to the Yellow Springs schools.”

According to the student, Tabea Wegers, a German exchange student who spent the 2013–14 school year in Yellow Springs, the interaction with her coach was deeply troubling. Reached at home in Germany earlier this month, Wegers said she felt uncomfortable about being alone with her coach, but she did not want to appear rude or ungrateful, so she agreed to run with him a few times outside the regular season, she said.

In the spring, she decided not to join the track team even though she wanted to participate in track, because of her negative associations with her coach.

“Even running itself was hard for me because it would remind me of everything that happened — even the fact that I told. It ruined running for me during that time.”

Other athletes weigh in
Several other athletes who ran with Peters in recent years described him as a “pushy” coach because, they said, he cared so much about the sport. According to former YSHS athlete Keturah Fulton, who ran track with Peters from 2009 to 2012, Peters was “passionate about running and did everything he could possibly do to get you out to run more so you could get better.”

“Vince is the kind of guy who wants to be your coach and also wants to be your friend — he genuinely cares, but not in an inappropriate way,” she said.

Parent Elizabeth Romohr felt grateful to Peters for his support and encouragement of her daughter, who ran both track and cross country at YSHS over the past three years. Peters started Friday night pasta nights before meets and texted and communicated directly with the kids, which Romohr appreciated because it gave them a sense of responsibility. Her daughter also related to the poetry he published in his weekly local running update, “The Bulldog Barker.”

“She wasn’t going to join the team, but Vince in a gentle way encouraged her, and she felt like it was the best thing she did,” Romohr said of her daughter. “She learned a lot about running not just as a sport but as a way of life.”

Peters was hired by Yellow Springs High School in 1982 as a cross country coach and eventually became the head coach of the cross country program in the fall and head girls track coach in the spring.

Over his career Peters has coached many successful athletes, including Sam Borchers, Lois Miller, Anita Allen and Swala Abrams. Peters was also named Metro Buckeye Conference Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2006.

In 2008 he served as McKinney/YSHS athletic director, and more recently, he had also served as a substitute bus driver for the district. Peters also coached the Miami Valley Track Club (MVTC) since 1979, and served on the board of directors of USA Track and Field and as the the national chairman of USA Race Walking. He lived in Yellow Springs with his family until last year.

The case for resignation
Part of the reason Peters agreed to resign, he said, was that his wife had already gotten a job in Chicago and he knew his family would likely be leaving within the year. He hoped to spare the student and her host family embarrassment and thought it was in everyone’s interest for him to resign and leave quietly, he said.

Peters had violated several school and ORC policies, including the school’s policies to avoid even “the appearance of impropriety” in fraternizing with students and keep electronic communication to curricular or co-curricular matters unless otherwise authorized; and the ORC’s prohibiting school personnel from “engaging in an immoral act, incompetence, negligence, or conduct that is unbecoming to the applicant’s or person’s position.”

The school’s decision to keep the information private was a judgment call as well. According to Superintendent Mario Basora, the school acted to protect the students first.

“The most important decision for us was to make sure our students were safe … Anytime there is a personnel matter involving students, we must first keep things confidential for the students and families involved. Student privacy is critically important for us,” Basora wrote in an email last week.
The school also tried to maintain the employee’s rights.

“Secondly, we are required to follow the law and not violate the civil rights of staff members or make comments that could be viewed as slander.”

As for providing information to the public, Basora felt that was “beyond the scope of my charge” as caretaker of the current student body and part of the reason he reported the incident to police, whose job it is to protect the public at large.

According to School Board President Aïda Merhemic, because Peters resigned before the matter came to the board for official action, the board had little direct involvement. The information they received from Basora about his process was in line with their priority to ensure student safety, she said.

According to Wegers’ host family, Wegers herself didn’t want the information to be public because she was afraid of retribution from other students or community members, Gabriele Leventhal said. And the family didn’t want to risk any additional stress on the student.

“Tabea was very stressed and very freaked out — she said that as long as she was in the United States she didn’t want it to be public,” Leventhal said. “The school was great. I have nothing but good things to say about how the school handled it.”

But, according to Daphne Woung, of ChildHelp, creating a culture of openness about sexual harassment issues is important because of the history of especially young athletes who have suffered abuse and kept quiet about it. ChildHelp underwrote the preventative sexual harassment education program Speak Up Be Safe for Athletes, which teaches school and sports communities about the signs and symptoms of harassment and steps students and their communities can take to prevent such abuse from taking place.

Regarding the case in Yellow Springs, according to Woung, the school may have done its due diligence internally, but the wider community can also use proactive educational tools to help others who may find themselves facing abuse of a similar kind.

“It’s not always the schools that have to speak up — maybe it’s the family members and friends that can be part of that voice,” Woung said. “One of the most powerful things to do is bring students together in a prevention program where they talk to a professional crisis counselor and rally around the idea of REFS, or report, educate and fight.”


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