Text messages and emails from high school coaches in one Valley school district showed only minor infractions of policies and procedures regarding contact with student-athletes, while those from five other districts show rules are being followed.
In August, The Daily Item requested, through the state's Right to Know Law, emails and text messages from coaches to see if paid employees were following policies put in place by districts in regard to contact between coaches and student-athletes.
The request was made following a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showing 1 in 10 U.S. students experience adult sexual misconduct — which range from inappropriate to illegal — by school personnel over the course of their academic careers. The Daily Item examined all Valley school district's policies about how teachers and coaches communicate with students both during and after the school day.
Milton, Lewisburg, Mount Carmel, Warrior Run, Shikellamy and Selinsgrove school districts all complied within the 30 days allowed by state law to the Right to Know request. An email miscommunication led Mifflinburg to get an additional 30-day extension to respond; the district has until late November to respond. Shamokin and Line Mountain both denied the records request. The Daily Item did not seek records for Danville, Midd-West and Southern Columbia.
Shikellamy was the only school district to report "minor infractions," which weren't related to contact with students, Superintendent Jason Bendle said.
Most Valley districts have strict policies forbidding teachers from either text messaging or emailing students on a one-on-one basis. Additionally, schools use mobile or online applications like Remind and Class Dojo to communicate in a group setting. Class Dojo is a classroom communication app used to share reports between parents and teachers while Remind is a text messaging app used to help teachers, students and parents communicate quickly and efficiently, according to the app website.
Several Valley districts provided screenshots of messages between coaches and athletes in response to the Right to Know request. Other districts made the records available for review.
Checks and balance
Valley superintendents who responded to the RTKL request said they found the exercise helpful, albeit time-consuming.
"Legislation has established our parameters for appropriate communication and behavior," Milton Area Superintendent Cathy Keegan said. "It is always good to inspect what is expected. The Daily Item Right To Know request caused the Milton Area School District to do exactly that — inspect what is legally expected."
"This was an effective 'checks & balance' exercise in which we emphasized the importance of appropriate communication and designated means for communication among our coaching staff and student-athletes," Warrior Run Superintendent Alan Hack said.
Shikellamy reported "minor infractions" of the district's usage policies. Those infractions — which showed personal business done through school district email — were unrelated to the records request regarding coach to athlete contact, Bendle said.
"This is being addressed by the district," Bendle said. "The district is also reviewing communication systems to better meet our needs."
Bendle said while the process of searching the information was time-consuming, it was worth the effort.
"This was good for us to tighten up our policies," Bendle said. "We were able to find things that we are doing that we could be better at."
No text message or email had any inappropriate messaging, according to documents produced by the district.
Mount Carmel Area does not have a policy for communication between coaches and players or retention of those records, but the district is in the process of developing one, Superintendent Bernie Steller said.
“I would say while it was a time-consuming task, it did point out that we should tighten up our policies,” Stellar said. “It was absolutely worth the time.”
Stellar said he and high school principal Lisa Varano, both Right to Know Officers, reviewed the request and the records and found no inappropriate contact. They also consulted with district solicitor Ed Greco.
At Warrior Run, Hack said contact was conducted through apps and in a group setting.
“We have nothing to hide,” Hack said. "It was a good practice for us and we are glad to report nothing was found that would be inappropriate. The majority of communication was conducted through the Remind App."
Milton Business Administrator Derrek Fink and Keegan said the records review took some time. Milton's records showed all of its coaches following policies and procedures.
Selinsgrove Area School District Right to Know Officer Susie McCollum provided documents showing district coaches are following policies and procedures and nothing inappropriate was discovered. Superintendent Chad Cohrs said he personally reviewed texts and emails after the request came to the district.
"Coaches in the district use an app called InstaTeam to communicate with players," he said. "These policies and procedures are reviewed annually at our coaches meeting."
Lewisburg Area High School provided copies of text messages and email and all policies and procedures were being followed.
Shamokin Area School District business manager and Right to Know officer Karen Colangelo denied the request. The district has not responded to any requests for comment from The Daily Item since a Right to Know request last year was filed seeking information on various district employees conducting outside work on district time.
Line Mountain Area School District also denied the Right to Know and cited the request as not being "specific." Both the Shamokin and Line Mountain decisions have been appealed to the state Office of Open Records. Shamokin Area School District solicitor Tim Bowers and The Daily Item have agreed to mediation through the state Office of Open Records on the matter.
Cases of inappropriate contact between educators and coaches and student-athletes have occurred in the Valley, including relationships that began through social media and texts.
In 2016, Chelsea Lorson confessed she sexually assaulted two underage Lewisburg Area students while working as a teacher's aide at the district high school. Lorson, an employee at the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, said she formed a relationship outside of school with one of the boys through Facebook messaging, according to police.
In 2013, Michael Zack, a 23-year-old substitute teacher at Shamokin, pleaded guilty after he sent 4,300 text messages that included graphic photos of himself to three teenage girls, two of them his students, according to court documents. A 17-year-old girl in one of Zack’s classes said Zack requested to be her friend on Facebook, and a short time later got her phone number on that social network site, according to court documents.
At Shikellamy, Sunbury Police officer-in-charge Brad Hare said the department has received two complaints within the 2018-2019 school year. Both were investigated and no charges were filed. Hare said he discussed one of the cases with the district attorney's office. Hare said he could not release the names of the teachers but the school was made aware of the situation. Hare said both complaints came in from Pennsylvania's ChildLine hotline.
"Neither case warranted charges," Hare said. "However the cases were turned over the school district because we believe it was a school issue."
Hare said the department has had no complaints so far this year
Snyder County District Attorney Mike Piecuch said Snyder County does not have any ongoing issues.
"From a student safety point of view, transparency when it comes to the communications between coaches and student-athletes is a good thing," Piecuch said. "We need that. It eliminates and becomes a deterrent to the few bad apples and also becomes a reassurance for those doing the right thing."
Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz agreed and said records requests lead to transparency.
"Northumberland County also does not have any ongoing issues," Matulewicz said. "A Right to Know request like this is used as a method of obtaining transparency through government agencies. Since they are taxpayer-funded there should be taxpayer oversight. "
Daily Item reporters Justin Strawser and Eric Scicchitano contributed to this report.