Marlboro coach under fire
Despite a winning record, Marlboro varsity football coach Richard Ward is under fire from district parents who allege a pattern of verbal abuse and inappropriate language.
A lengthy harassment complaint form was filed on Feb. 22, 2013 by parents Al and Keri Votta and Thomas Corcoran, alleging numerous incidents between Ward and his players that took place in the pre-2011 season and also during practices and games in the 2012 football season.
The complaint contained comments from numerous students and was filed with Michael Bakatsias, assistant superintendent for personnel and technology. The document highlighted in writing numerous alleged incidents concerning the coach: Ward calling JV player Mike Grieven a “candy-ass motherf____” after the coach felt he failed to perform adequately; Justin Votta once fumbled the ball because the field lights went out at a practice with Ward responding, “Listen, I don’t need your bulls—-. I‘ll bring kids up from JV. You have to overcome adversity.” In a Highland/Marlboro game, Ward shouted at a student who had missed a play, saying, “You’re on thin ice, motherf______.” Ward also took his anger out on player James Farrett, yelling at him to “Get the hell off the f—ing field. I don’t want to see you around” after a particular play.
In the harassment complaint, player Justin Votta “expressed concern because the coach should be a role model and stated that these are antics of a bully.” The complaint also states that in 2011 Corcoran’s son was playing a pre-season game at the Camp of Champions, hosted by Valley Central when Ward grabbed his face mask when a mistake was made and told him to “Shut the f___ up” and pushed him off the field. After this incident young Tom Corcoran chose never to play again under Ward, with his father claiming that in this incident and others Ward has violated Sec. 9 of the By Laws on Unsportsmanlike Conduct; the NYS Public High School Athletic Association By Laws on Sportsmanship and the Marlboro Athletic Handbook on Coaching Ethics.
The senior Corcoran also complained that Ward held practice on Oct. 30, 2012, in the period surrounding Hurricane Sandy, which he believes put the students at risk.
“Who gave Rich Ward permission to hold a practice during a county-wide state of emergency on Oct. 30, 2012?” he asked in his complaint.
Ward stated in an email, dated the morning in question, that “(District Schools Superintendent Ray) Castellani gave us the OK to practice at 3 today at the high school field.” In a follow-up interview, Castellani said he did give permission because the state of emergency had been lifted.
In addition to Grieven, Farrett, the Votta brothers and young Corcoran, the harassment complaint lists the names of additional witnesses to the alleged events: Ryan Cary and Dominic Santora, two additional students who played football, and Marlboro Athletic Director Jonnah O‘Donnell.
Just days before the filing of the complaint, Ward circulated an email, addressed as “Dear Marlboro Football Families,” indicating he wished to tell his side of the story.
At the heart of his comments, Ward wrote that “I will not be bullied or forced into resigning or quitting based on fabrications and/or polls that put your son in the middle of such childish manners. My door has always been open to anyone who wanted to discuss matters that occurred with their child, however, I will not open my door to discuss fabrications, and allegations that are meaningless and have hidden agendas.”
Ward further stated that if the district wants him to leave he will step aside, but that he would still be a “supportive community member, unlike other members of this community, because once again I believe a successful Marlboro Football program is bigger than just one person.”
When contacted by the Southern Ulster Times, Ward said that he has faith in the system and in the investigation and asked for people to hold their comments at this time.
This issue was brought to the forefront after the Vottas, Corcoran, Harry St. John (father of another Marlboro football player) and students met with civil rights and constitutional attorney Michael Sussman, who contacted the district earlier this year.
“I wrote the school superintendent and the school board a letter in which I indicated that the behavior that’s reported was despicable and that they need to proceed with regard to it,” he said, adding there is no reason to disbelieve the reports on Ward’s alleged behavior because there “were eyewitnesses of the abuse at games and the students personally suffered the abuse.”
After failing to receive a response, Sussman again contacted the district.
“I wrote a second letter basically saying what’s wrong with you,” Sussman said, urging the school district’s attorney, Judith Mayle, to make this matter a priority. “It is an outrage. How can you allow someone like this to be coaching?”
This led Sussman to arrange a meeting last spring with approximately 12 students and an independent investigator, Ken Bernstein, who was hired by the district. The report of his investigation was to be sent to then school board President Stephen Jennison and a copy was to be given to Sussman. To date Sussman has not seen the report but is skeptical that ultimately anything will change because of it.
Sussman said he told Mayle and Bernstein about additional allegations concerning racist and sexist comments made by Ward about players, but also about the most troubling aspect of this case – Ward’s alleged instructions to his players to intentionally injure the legs of certain players on opposing teams during games. On June 5, 2013, Mayle informed Sussman that “the district will reopen its investigation regarding allegations against the coach based on new information provided from the Bernstein investigation.” She requested that Sussman provide her with the names of individuals who alleged to Bernstein that Ward said “run that n—– into the ground,” about an African-American player and that he once referred to Athletic Director O’Donnell as “that c— .”
Last week the school board hired attorney Joseph Wooley to conduct another investigation of a “personnel matter.” Corcoran confirmed this was about the Ward matter because Wooley interviewed him.
Sussman said the irony is that if Ward had had a terrible season in 2012 he would have been let go. But the Iron Dukes were 11-1 last season, reaching the state semifinals, and Ward was re-hired for the 2013 season.
He said he believes the district has a strategy.
“They’re hoping, as they often do, [that] parents are going to go away; there’ll be a new group of kids; I’ll get tired; I have a lot of cases; I have another priority,” he said, making it appear that the district is hoping to run the clock out. He said this is not going to happen because “this is real life.”
Sussman said he has been giving Castellani and the school board the time to make this right before filing a federal lawsuit, which he expects not only will result in the firing of Ward, but there may be a significant monetary amount in damages awarded to his clients.
“It entails damages to children and students who have been harmed either physically or mentally by the abusive conduct of a coach who remains there,” he said. “Parents and players told the superintendent [and] school board members observed the abuse and they did nothing about it. This is adult-on-student bullying in the presence of adults. It’s a very serious situation.”
Sussman said a recent lawsuit of student-on-student bullying in Pine Plains resulted in a jury award of $1 million but said what is happening in Marlboro; “is worse.”
The school district has indicated it will respond to a Freedom of Information request from the Southern Ulster Times seeking documents on this matter.
At press deadline Jonnah O’Donnell did not return a call for comment for this article.
Castellani when contacted Monday, said Bakatsias did look into the alleged harassment charges “and came up with the conclusion that there was no harassments at all substantiated, and that was based upon the witnesses presented to Mike by the complainants.” Castellani said Bakatsias, however, put Ward on notice about inappropriate language “and that will not be tolerated.”
“Why would someone be fired based on that?” Castellani asked.
Castellani said additional issues are being investigated but he does not have direct knowledge that Ward allegedly directed his players to physically harm opposing players during games, noting that these allegations have not been substantiated.
By MARK REYNOLDS