Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 5
Out of bounds: The Sun investigates what happens when coaches are accused of abusing their power
BY KRISTINA SEWELL AND AMY ASMAN
Shock waves are physically powerful forces. They can carry energy strong enough to move through just about any barrier, disrupting everything they touch.
Then there are shock waves of an intangible sort, the kind that can unsettle a community with an energy that awakens fear, confusion, and mistrust as it spreads from its source.
In late February, one such tremor rocked the area when the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District and the police department announced the arrest of Brian Hook, a Pioneer Valley High School teacher and varsity basketball coach suspected of sexual misconduct with a student.
The week before the news broke, the Sun spoke with Hook and his players for a feature sports story as they got ready for their CIF debut.
“I think this is very special,” Hook told Staff Writer Kristina Sewell about the team’s chance to dance at CIF. “When I took over two years ago, I asked the girls what the gym was missing. [They said] a banner of our own.”
Instead, what the Lady Panthers got was the painful realization of learning their coach had been accused of performing illegal sexual acts on a 16-year-old student. While the girl involved in the case isn’t one of Hook’s players, the alleged crime has still impacted the team, the high school, and the community at large, leaving everyone with a host of questions and concerns.
Pioneer Valley High School officials, including Principal Shanda Herrera, declined to comment on the case, referring media inquiries to the district assistant superintendent of human resources, Tracy Marsh, who told the Sun in February, “Of course, it’s ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ It’s still a man’s reputation we’re talking about. And, of course, our hearts go out to those affected by [the incident]: the students, parents, and the basketball team.”
As of press time, Hook remained in custody in Santa Barbara County Jail, awaiting the setting of his preliminary hearing, which is scheduled to take place before Judge Rick Brown on April 24 in Santa Maria.
Until then—and likely long after—the question on many people’s minds will be: Why? Why do cases like this happen?
This week, the Sun asked local educators, law enforcement officers, and sex-abuse prevention advocates about what happens when educators and mentors cross the proverbial line with their students—or are accused of doing so.
Kelly Moore is a lieutenant in the criminal investigations unit of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. He told the Sun that sex crimes involving teachers or coaches and their underage students don’t happen frequently, “but they’re not uncommon either.”
“If you only deal with one case in your career, it can draw a lot of notoriety,” Moore said.
He explained that many people might think incidents and reports of sexual abuse are happening more often today than in years past, and that’s because members of the public are simply more interested in learning about these kinds of crimes and cases than they were decades ago—and the stories are getting picked up more by the media.
When something like this comes to light, Moore said, many people think, “How could that happen? We trusted him!”—or her, because the crime is definitely and unfortunately not a male-only phenomenon.
Moore’s answer to the cases that end in guilty verdicts: “Well, that’s part of their M.O. They target their victims.”
Perpetrators of these kinds of crimes, he explained, “are in a position of trust … and, obviously, they don’t care about violating that trust.”
And the motivating factors behind the crimes, he said, “are as individual as the individual himself.”
“That’s one of the biggest scare factors: You can’t really predict who will commit crimes like these because there’s no stereotype,” Moore explained.
Alison Wales, volunteer and counseling services coordinator at the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center in Lompoc, said sex crimes are “all about power and control, and, honestly, a little bit of ego.”
Having a sexual relationship with a minor, Wales said, isn’t all about the sex, but rather “the rush.”
“For the most part, it’s about the thrill, it’s about the excitement,” she said. “It’s the mentality, ‘I am invincible, I am smarter than, I am bigger than. I am powerful and I am in control.”
While perpetrators have different sexual preferences and habits, she said, it still comes down to the thought of what they can get away with.
Of course, there could be times when a student inappropriately comes on to, or flirts with, an adult, but Wales argues that it’s the adult’s job to swiftly deflect such advances.
“Especially if the student is in high school, people might say, ‘Well, she’s old enough to know better,’ but the truth is, she’s still a child,” Wales said. “They’re full or hormones, and they’re testing their boundaries because they’re developing into adults.”
Grown adults, on the other hand, she said, “should know what’s wrong and what’s taboo.”
If a student starts acting inappropriately with a teacher, Wales said, that’s time for the teacher to ask, “OK, what else is going on in your life? Instead of, ‘Oh, you kissed me. That was kind of nice—let’s do it again.’”
She explained that if a male or female is acting over-sexualized, that’s typically a red flag of either past abuse or issues within themselves or within the family.
A coach’s perspective
The Sun reached out to several local schools and coaches for this article, asking for their perspective on the Hook case. More importantly, the Sun wanted to know how situations like these impact coaches whose positions demand trust.
Due to a variety of mitigating factors, only one coach felt comfortable commenting on the matter—but still asked that we use a pseudonym.
"I can tell you this: I have seen it happen more and more through my years. It is truly a terrible thing,” Jack Smith* said.
Smith said he can remember giving his players rides home during his early coaching days, but now he wouldn’t dream of it. The coach said he avoids even meeting with his players one-on-one unless his assistant coach is present.
Smith hired a female assistant coach to help handle issues that are difficult or inappropriate for a male coach to deal with.
“There is just too much risk nowadays, and you never know how something may be perceived or judged,” he said.
Time to heal
As the Hook case progresses, students, teachers, parents, and other members of the community are working together to move beyond it.
The Rape Crisis Center’s Wales said she considers these kinds of cases to be “like a death in the family.”
Until Hook goes to trial and a verdict is reached—and even after that—people will continue to doubt and question.
“Who you thought he was, what you believe in—everything has changed,” Wales said. “Who you thought this person to be is maybe not true.”
She said numerous women in the community come to the center for counseling decades after dealing with the sexual advances of a coach or another authority figure.
“Our services are available to whoever needs to talk: the victim, the team, even Hook’s family,” Wales said, adding that an event like this can be incredibly difficult for an arrestee’s loved ones as well, whether he’s deemed guilty or innocent.
Echoing the sheriff’s department’s Moore, Wales said the appearance of more cases of suspected and proven sexual abuse is attributable to an increase in reporting and because people are better educated about what isn’t OK in terms of behavior.
“There’s a whole generation of education out there—and we’re just getting started on talking about [crimes against] men and boys,” she said.
Moore said it’s important that parents take an active role in their children’s lives and educate them about self-preservation.
“The older the child, the more freedoms we want to give them,” he said, but often times the lines between appropriate and inappropriate relationships get blurred as children get older.
Parents, he said, “have to strike a balance between trust and distrust.”
“It’s OK to ask a lot of questions,” he said, especially when extracurricular activities like sports require kids to travel on the weekend. And parents need to educate their children about what constitutes an appropriate or inappropriate relationship.
It’s also OK, Moore said, to question coaches or teachers if a parent sees something that “just doesn’t look right or just doesn’t feel right.”
“There are a lot of expectations that laws protect people, but laws only protect people if other people choose to follow the law,” he said. “The laws come in after the crime has been committed.” m
* This name has been changed.