By Shelby Taylor and Lou Marzeles
Goldendale Sentinel 

Inquiry on coach settles little


A complex and heated controversy over the conduct of Goldendale High School (GHS) volleyball coach Jodi Bellamy has been officially resolved, though the unanimous decision of the school board supporting Bellamy has done little to quell remaining disquiet on both sides of the issue. It also leaves unanswered tenacious questions about the manner in which an investigation into Bellamy’s behavior was conducted by Goldendale School District (GSD) Superintendent Mark Heid, as well as lingering confusion over why the board voted as it did.

At the heart of the inquiry into Bellamy’s conduct were allegations of bullying, verbal and mental abuse, intimidation, and fear of retaliation. Bullying by coaches in the U.S. is an increasingly visible phenomenon, with web sites dedicated to the topic with names such as “The Consequences of Verbally Abusive Coaches.” Psychologist Dr. John Schinnerer on that particular site writes that some 50 percent of teachers and coaches in the U.S. admit to using their power and intimidation to bully students—and that the action is actually encouraged by some administrators. Goldendale parents and players brought their concerns about Bellamy to the district. An investigation within the school was conducted, and these allegations climbed the ladder until reaching a full hearing before the school board on June 6.

On Feb. 17, a formal complaint was presented to GSD by some parents of volleyball team players against Bellamy. The school ultimately brought in a private investigator to evaluate claims of bullying, retaliation, and intimidation towards the players. The accusations were reflected in some 10 years of filed complaints against Bellamy, according to the complainants.

After being asked why no response to the allegations had come after three weeks, Heid stated, “There is no interaction between the coach and the athletes currently, so the need to hurry is not needed.” GHS Principal John Westerman and Athletic Director Chris Hill sent a letter to parents stating, “Areas of focus will include better communication to players and parents about playing time, communication to players about specific improvements needed in order to gain playing time, and improving the perceived level of respect from the coach to players. Based upon the evidence that has been collected, it is recommended by the administration that the evaluation process continue to be used in this case rather than taking disciplinary steps.”

Parents expressed concern for the school’s unwillingness to consider disciplinary action and that the investigation seemed to focus on communication instead of the bullying claims against the coach. In response, Heid commented, “Coach Bellamy has been reminded that the district has zero tolerance for retaliation, and I do not foresee any problems in this regard, but if you or your student perceives that you have been retaliated against, please report it to me immediately. Retaliation is prohibited and will result in appropriate discipline. It is a violation of this policy to threaten or harm someone for reporting harassment, intimidation, or bullying.”

The district’s reactions were considered insufficient to the parents, who again pressed the matter to Heid. His response was to bring in an investigator employed by the district’s insurance firm, Alan Key, with whom Heid had previously worked. On May 16th, 186 days after the building-level investigation was initiated, parents were presented with a four-page, summary of the complete investigation report. The full 28-page report was released to the parents—and to other recipients some say were not authorized to receive it—on June 3.

In his report, Key stated, “Coach Bellamy’s actions and behaviors suggested questionable judgement in several situations. There is no doubt some of Coach Bellamy’s players perceived her conduct to be bullying and/or intimidating.” He went on to explain, “I was not asked to render an opinion one way or the other as to any potential outcome of this investigation or to recommend any course of action. Essentially, it boiled down to the following deliberate behaviors: name calling; demeaning; threatening; insulting; taunting; criticizing; ridiculing; intimidating; yelling at a specific child for losing; hazing; negative questioning; shunning; and punishing for not playing up to expectations.” In Key’s conclusion, he states, “There is no doubt Coach Bellamy is a passionate coach who has a long history of success in the Goldendale School District, but the question that has to be asked is, at what expense does this legacy come?”

On the heels of the report, Heid informed the parents, “I have reviewed all the information that was sent to me, and based upon the input from all that were heard from, the report from the investigator, and the responses received from past players and parents, I have come to the conclusion that there was no intentional act of harassment, intimidation, or bullying that rises to the level of violating Board Policy 3207.” That policy defines bullying as, “When an act: Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property, has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education, is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it created an intimidation or threatening educational environment, and has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school. Other distinguishing characteristics can include but are not limited to: physical appearance, clothing or other apparel, socioeconomic status, and weight. Intentional acts refer to the individual’s choice to engage in the act rather than the ultimate impact of the actions.” The policy notably emphasizes intention over outcome and omits broader characteristics of an abusive coach contained in other school policies, which include publicly embarrassing and humiliating athletes, being disinterested in the feelings of a player, becoming defensive and angry, using excessive conditioning as punishment, utilizing fear and intimidation, and killing an athlete’s joy and enthusiasm for the sport.

The parents appealed the school’s decision to keep the coach. Attorney Terri Merriam of Merriam and Associates, stated, “There are enough of these complaints having a consistent theme to suggest that the experiences of these students are not unique or limited to isolated incidents.”

On Friday, June 3, the parents were informed of a hearing the following Monday, June 6 at 5:30 p.m. and given their first look at the complete investigator’s report. At that hearing, the school was accompanied by two attorneys representing the school and its insurance company. Lack of preparation time, the parents say, left them unable to pursue professional representation. With only 30 minutes to present their side at the hearing, the parents requested an extension to obtain proper representation. The extension was denied, yielding a unanimous vote (5-0) to keep Bellamy on.

Asked for comment on the vote, only one of the school board members responded by press time, deferring comments to Chair John Hoctor, the only one without email and who could not be reached.

Heid refuses to comment on any possible corrective action regarding Bellamy—he says union rules forbid such public disclosure—but says, “What we’ve asked her, and all of our coaches, what we said we are going to do is Proactive coaching. So I have been in contact with Bruce Brown. We are going to have a training in August for all of our coaches and what it’s like to work with the 21st century athletes, for a lack of a better term for it.”

Merriam warns of legal and professional conduct issues. “From the written statements of the parents and students,” she says, “there is evidence of unprofessional conduct that includes belittling, shaming, surveillance of students personal behavior, inappropriate use of Facebook, and other conduct which suggests inappropriate suspiciousness, manipulative conduct, inappropriate emotional responses such as crying and temper tantrums which suggest instability, and overly authoritarian approaches to student behavior. An investigation of these complaints should be done by neutral professionals with no connection to the school, its insurer, or its representatives, preferably a panel of three representing different disciplines, such as psychology, athletic coaching or teaching, and one familiar with legal and regulatory compliance.”

The complaints

Some student’s experiences with Bellamy cited in the investigation report include: “Practices would consist of public shaming, she would frequently stop the varsity practice to single out a player to run around the court while she yelled, making us watch the girl as she cried;” “Her punishment was public humiliation;” “She made belittling comments, such as the players’ lack of athletic ability—‘you can’t run’—or the player’s weight—‘you need to lose five pounds’—regularly occur during practice.”

Not all agree, such as Carren Tallman, parent of a freshman player. She stated, “Coach Bellamy is, without a doubt a passionate coach, and to be honest, when I first met her, I was a bit intimidated because that passion often comes out as boisterous direction and necessary constructive criticism. She can be intimidating, but that is one thing that makes her a great coach.”

Tiffany Ferch, assistant coach, former player, GHS teacher and district employee, wrote, “If players cannot control themselves on the court, it is up to the coach to follow the Proactive coaching style and Goldendale High School guidelines by rewarding good attitudes and having consequences for negative attitudes. Poor and lazy players will receive poorer results, and hard-working players will receive positive results.” GSD has adopted the Proactive coaching method designed by Bruce Brown, an award-winning coach, writer, and speaker. Brown has given multiple training programs to GSD coaches.

Other supporters of Bellamy’s coaching wrote to The Sentinel when word spread of an imminent story. Their comments include: “At least she consistently develops a team that can compete and is feared by her competitors. She gives us a team to be proud of.” “Her demeanor and professionalism is presented well to the community, her team members, and to other teams in our league.” She received expressions of support from parents, a past athletic director, and some players.

Bellamy was asked for comment. Though she talked with The Sentinel at length, she chose to keep her remarks off the record.

On one occasion, Bellamy’s decision to remove a student from the team was overturned by the school athletic director, resulting in Bellamy voluntarily removing herself as coach. This prompted Heid to reinstate Bellamy and her initial decision.

Bellamy’s supporters have sounded a common refrain: the complainants are overly sensitive, interfering helicopter mothers with whiny kids whose abilities and/or attitudes are below par or they’re upset because they don’t get enough playing time. Comments of this nature are in every supporter’s responses.

Heid says concerned players should have been talking with Bellamy at the outset. “Their job is to talk to their coaches if they have a concern,” he states. “And that’s changed. The parents are being strong advocates for kids, which they should be, but at the same time, then the kids don’t learn those true leadership roles of being able to take care of their own issues.” He questions why some of the complaints took years to be heard. “If you have those concerns, you need to really address them before four years are up,” he says. “I know from time to time they did come in and talk, and we as the administrators are going to do a better job of discipline, or if it’s something that we need to put in a teacher or coach’s evaluation.”

Heid questions parents’ statements of witnessing wrongdoing during practices. “It’s kind of funny,” he says. “They are at this point, but their girls went through the program for four years, and I can count on probably one hand how many times I saw them in the gym watching them practice.” The parents take issue with the comment; Klickitat Valley Health CEO Leslie Hiebert, for example, says she saw many practices.

Heid’s support for Bellamy has taken tones that further upset the complainants. One of them, Laurie Garrigus, recalls a conversation with Heid: “He spoke of Jodi Bellamy being the only winning coach he has in the high school sports program and there would be nobody of her caliber to replace her. He said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather have an abusive coach than a placeholder?’”

Heid feels his words have been distorted for effect by some complainants. He does acknowledge one area that needs improvement: communication. “If we’d gotten word out sooner about some decisions,” he says, “it definitely would have been better.”

This story is the first of an intermittent series.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019