Steve's Soapbox

Friday, November 18, 2005

Brownwood: Small towns can get big problems

Small towns can get big problems
It's easier to keep quiet than to ask questions, but at what cost?
01:22 AM CST on Friday, November 18, 2005
Coaching high school football makes nomads of many men, so it might not seem unusual that Pat Ward's resume looks like a bus tour of Texas.
Except for this: Ten Texas stops in 16 years, and Ward, a success by the numbers, worked mostly at the Class A level as a head coach.
Maybe he just likes the feel of small towns and programs. Nothing wrong with that.
Or maybe, as our Gary Jacobson reported in a riveting piece Sunday, the Texas towns facilitated a disturbing pattern.
A long paper trail and first-hand accounts include allegations that Ward threatened, intimidated and ultimately bullied coaches, faculty and administrators.
"A predator," one of Ward's former bosses called him.
Of course, some liked him. One even hired him twice.
High Schools
Coaching up a storm (11/13)
Others had no comment at all. Some couldn't. Any derogatory statements not only would violate settlements, they'd conflict with the glowing letters of recommendation required by the agreements.
Why did school districts such as Carlisle, Marfa and Quinlan cave in? Money, for one thing. District legal fees in Marfa, normally $2,000 to $3,000, ran up to $41,000 in one of Ward's years there, a big hole in a small budget.
But maybe it's more than money. Maybe it's fear. Fear of bad publicity, fear of hard feelings in a close-knit community, fear of lives disrupted.
Other cases bear similar results. Remember Merkel? An investigation by Child Protective Services indicated improper relations between female students and some coaches had gone on for years.
No one was really surprised. People grew up with the rumors, residents told the Abilene Reporter-News.
And what happened? Nothing until a sexual harassment seminar at Merkel in the summer of 2004, when tips were called in to CPS and the probe began.
Bottom line: Four teachers either resigned or were reassigned and two surrendered their teaching credentials.
No one was indicted. But, as a Merkel city councilman put it, the stain on the town marks everyone.
"This reputation will see me dead and buried," Steve Campbell told The Dallas Morning News. "I don't think it will ruin us, that we'll never survive, but when Merkel's name comes up, it will be associated with this for a long time."
Remember Bremond? A couple of concerned taxpayers in the tiny town two hours south of Dallas questioned what was going on with money meant for schools, and an audit led to the indictment of the superintendent.
And town reaction? "Maybe they've done an ounce of good," one resident said of the activists, "but they've done a pound of bad."
The town uproar simply wasn't worth it, some said. One businessman told our Diane Jennings that, if dealt with at all, the scandal should have been handled the "hush-hush way."
Other towns do it, and it's not hard to see why. The smaller the community, the more likely it's full of family. One coach mentioned in the Merkel allegations was the husband of a local principal.
Even if residents aren't related, they've got to live with one another. They dine in the same cafes, go to the same schools, sit in the same pews.
Who wants to start a fight with someone you have to live with day after day after day?
And that's not unique to small towns, either. Every one of us is a member of some smaller community, whether it's a church or synagogue or booster club or lodge, and we understand the reservations when problems inevitably arise.
Easier just to let it go. Don't take stands. Not publicly, anyway. Negotiate, if you have to, and avoid protracted court cases and bad publicity at all costs.
That's how they handled Pat Ward's troubling case in Quinlan, Marfa and Carlisle.
But here's the problem dealing with a coach like Ward that way: He just moves on down the road to another town, another school.
And some he's left behind don't like it, either.
"I don't believe in paying it off or mailing it off to another district," a former Marfa superintendent, Carl Robinson, told The News.
"He's going to be a problem wherever he goes. That's just his nature."
Ward's in New Mexico now. Escalante High School, a Class A school, didn't win a game last year. This season, Ward's first, it went 9-2.
Best of luck from here on out, Escalante. Here's hoping the football team wins, too.