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The Press Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
A former Chino Valley Unified girls basketball coach is no longer employed with the district following allegations of bullying and unwanted touching, and the future of a second coach - his wife - is in question.
Barry Absec, who coached the Ayala High School junior varsity girls team in the 2017-18 school year, has been accused by parents and players of bullying the girls and, in one case, touching a student inappropriately. Police are investigating the latter allegation.
In the meantime, Absec is no longer coaching: "He is no longer employed with the district," Chino Valley Unified spokeswoman Imee Perius said in an email.
Parents and players, meanwhile, have raised concerns about Absec's wife, head girls basketball coach Amy Campbell, accusing her of bullying girls in the program.
Campbell has taught and coached for Chino Valley Unified since 2008, according to the district. No moves have been made to remove her from her basketball coaching position, "but the season does not begin until December and the situation is being evaluated," Perius said in an email. According to parents of players in the program, the year-round schedule of basketball practices that had been normal under Campbell are on hold this school year.
In May, at the Best in the West tournament in Yakima, Washington, then-freshman Salene Nava served as the scorekeeper for her teammates on Ayala's JV girls basketball team.
"I was sitting on the bleachers with a few of my teammates, waiting for my next shift, when Coach (Barry) Absec approached me as I was wearing Nike yoga shorts," Salene, 15, told the Chino Valley Unified school board at its July 19 meeting.
"After approaching me, he proceeded to place both of his hands on my inner thighs and continued to bring his face closer toward mine and speak to me about my next shift," she told the board. "This made me feel uncomfortable and frightened, based on what he could have done next."
After the board meeting, according to the Nava family, Richard Rideout, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources, approached the family. He then allegedly questioned the length of Salene's shorts and said he believed because the touching occurred in public, Absec probably had no sinister intentions.
"He said, 'It was an open area, so I don't see it being like a sexual act,' " Salene's mother, Marlene Nava, recalled later. "'I don't think he would do it like that.' "
Rideout denied making the comments.
"The safety and security of our students is our highest priority and we conduct thorough investigations with the utmost impartiality in response to formal complaints," he wrote in an email.
Rideout said the allegation was reported to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department in July.
"The Chino Hills station has an open investigation related to these allegations," Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Cindy Bachman wrote in an email. "Due to the ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate to release details at this time."
When Salene returned to campus on Aug. 13, she discovered that Absec's wife, head girls basketball coach Amy Campbell, had cut her from the team. She wants back in, but the family said it has been told no decision about her participation on the team will be made until an investigation into Campbell is complete.
"I am very happy that (Absec) is gone. I hope that he is not allowed to work with children because he absolutely knows what his boundaries are as a mandated reporter," Veronica Muñoz, the mother of a girl who resigned from the JV team in the spring over what she said was bullying by the two coaches, said in an interview. "If you don't know, you definitely should not be working with children."
Under California law, almost everyone who works with children, including teachers, coaches, physicians, social workers, day-care workers and the clergy - is a "mandated reporter" who must report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Public school employees receive regular training on their legal responsibilities and what to look for.
July 19 board meeting
Salene was one of 10 people connected with the team to speak out about Absec and Campbell at the July 19 school board meeting.
"Coach Campbell has been given many opportunities to redeem herself," mother Tiffany Oestreich told the board. "But she's reverted back to her old bullying ways and name-calling. She's not fit for the program and should not be extended a contract."
Eight team members left the program last school year, according to Oestreich and other parents interviewed, and students have transferred to other high schools to play with other coaches instead.
According to parents, current and past team members interviewed after the July 19 school board meeting, Campbell and Absec yell and throw things. JV players who have wanted to move up to the varsity team would end up attending both practices, which would sometimes run for up to six consecutive hours without breaks, according to some of the girls. Parents were locked out of the gym to keep them from interfering, according to current and former players.
"I learned pretty quickly that this program was based on fear, rather than respect," Marissa Muñoz, 15, who is a sophomore this year, told the board on July 19, reading from her letter of resignation submitted last spring. "It's not OK for you to treat us this way. I came to this program with a love of basketball, and now I don't even want to step out on the court."
At the meeting, Salene accused both Absec and Campbell of racism.
"When we were in the team room, watching game film, and (Campbell) pointed out a player of color on our varsity team, and stated she could not see her because she blended in with the black padding on the wall," Salene said. "Coach Campbell laughed at her in front of all her teammates, embarrassing her."
Absec twice walked in on the girls while they were changing, despite posted notices, according to two people who spoke at the July 19 meeting.
But Campbell remains the real problem, according to Muñoz.
"If she's affecting girls in this way, to this extent, she shouldn't be coaching them," she said. "She should re-evaluate how she treats the girls who are complaining about her, instead of just saying 'well, these girls love me, these girls aren't complaining.' "
Both basketball and softball players - Campbell is the assistant coach for the Ayala softball team - defended her at a school board meeting on Aug. 16.
Absec and Campbell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At the end of the July 19 meeting, board members and the district's new superintendent assured parents they would follow up on the complaints.
"I heard all the parents' concerns tonight, and the district will be looking into this," Superintendent Norm Enfield said.
Not the first complaint
The July 19 meeting wasn't the first time Enfield had heard complaints about Campbell.
On Jan. 25, 2013, when he was the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, Enfield received a petition from 11 parents of Ayala girls basketball players.
"(Campbell) herself has instigated and allowed these girls to be abused, physically, mentally and academically, either by herself and/or her fellow team members," a cover letter attached to the petition, signed by parents Steve and Sherri Methot, reads in part.
The petition, also sent to Ayala Principal Diana Yarboi, included accusations that Campbell had verbally and physically abused girls on the team.
According to another complaint sent to former Superintendent Wayne Joseph on April 4, 2013, the district's investigation substantiated some of the accusations against Campbell, including her use of profanity and throwing a water bottle. But, parents said, the district had listed some of the allegations in the January petition as unsubstantiated, without speaking to the girls involved.
"I made a mistake in practice," said Kate Katsuhiro, 21, now a senior at Cal Poly Pomona, in an interview. "She proceeded to grab me by the neck of my jersey and shoved me to the sidelines."
Katsuhiro, a freshman playing varsity in 2011, went down on the floor and saw a doctor later. The incident was mentioned in the January 2013 complaint, but Katsuhiro said no one investigating the incident ever spoke to her about it.
According to 2014 Ayala High graduate Kara Methot, Yarboi told the players during the investigation that it was important for them to support Campbell.
Five years later, Yarboi said she doesn't recall making that remark.
"I do not recall specific statements I made in 2013 about Ms. Amy Campbell," Yarboi wrote in an email. "It has always been my philosophy and practice to foster a positive school environment for my students and staff, and to ensure that all my students feel safe and supported in their learning environment. As such, I handle student complaints seriously and elevate them to the district level as appropriate."
Campbell and Absec, meanwhile, aren't the only Ayala coaches parents and students have complained about in recent years.
In November 2016, 17 people accused Bernie Wendling, who coached volleyball at the school, of bullying players. He resigned as coach that month, on the same day the Southern California News Group requested copies of all complaints made against him. The district said at the time that it had investigated two complaints against Wendling in the past five years.
Associated Chino Teachers, the union that represents teachers in the district, took Chino Valley Unified to court in an attempt to block the release of the records, which an attorney representing the union said would "injure his reputation." Wendling continues to teach math at Ayala High. The court has not yet made a final decision about releasing his disciplinary records. The district is currently processing similar records requests regarding Absec and Campbell.
"I hope the culture changes in the district, because it's not the first time," mother Veronica Muñoz said. "It saddens me that it's taken this many investigations and multiple schools for the school district to finally do the right thing."
Staff writer Beatriz E. Valenzuela contributed to this report.
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