Coach-student bonds often go unquestioned
Student athletes are especially vulnerable to abuse from coaches, say experts in the wake of two local accusations.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published November 3, 2005
TAMPA - Whispered rumors of sex between girls basketball coach Jaymee Wallace and a female student swirled around Wharton High School's New Tampa campus. The girl, now 17, begged her sister and teammates not to tell.
For months they obliged, hiding it from parents and school officials.
The long-running camouflage was made easier, experts say, by the often close nature of relationships between coaches and students.
Wallace was in a position of authority and trust.
In such a case, experts say, parents - and students - can wrongly assume the best of intentions by coaches.
"That's what makes the student athlete so vulnerable," said Marj Snyder, chief program officer for the Women's Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by tennis star Billie Jean King.
"They think, "This is a person I trust. If my coach is doing it, it must be okay."'
The Wharton girl's friends didn't start talking until June, when her confession to her mother sparked a two-month police investigation that resulted in Wallace's recent arrest.
Authorities on Monday charged Wallace, 28, with one count of lewd and lascivious battery, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The longtime Wharton math teacher posted $7,500 bail and will plead not guilty, her attorney said. She now works in a school district office and has no contact with students. Wallace denies the charges.
It wasn't the only arrest in the bay area this week involving a female high school coach. Citrus County teacher Amy Gail Lilley, Lecanto High School's former softball coach, was arrested Tuesday amid allegations she had sex several times during a two-month relationship with a female student, 15. It is unclear whether the student was a softball player. Lilley, 36, was charged with lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16.
The Wharton student told detectives she and Wallace had sex more than 50 times between early 2003 and August 2004.
Hoftsra University professor Charol Shakeshaft said a coach has more opportunity for interaction with student athletes that, unchecked, can lead to an inappropriate relationship.
"It can be similar to a teacher who teaches music or theater," said Shakeshaft, who is reviewing educator sexual abuse as part of a contract with the U.S. Department of Education. "You are spending time after school together, on weekends during practice. And that doesn't immediately raise suspicion."
The Wharton student and her teammates told detectives that Wallace often drove them home from practice and spent weekends with them.
Authorities say parents grew suspicious when Wallace's visits with students grew more frequent and erratic, with Wallace sometimes picking them up before dawn and dropping them off after dark. Had Wallace been a male coach, red flags might have gone up sooner, experts say.
Shakeshaft said female-to-female abuse is the least prevalent pattern of educator-student abuse, but it happens.
A 2004 U.S. Department of Education survey of 2,500 students in grades 8 through 11 found that 13 percent of reported incidents involved a female educator and a female student, Shakeshaft said.
The survey did not specify how many of the educators also were coaches, but Shakeshaft said coaches are "at the top of the list among the roles of people who cross boundaries."
"The coach has a right to tell the student to do things, just by the nature of their job," said Kansas State University professor Bob Shoop, an expert witness in cases involving sexual abuse between teachers and students.
"The coach has almost total power over what the student eats, how they dress, what they do. Not only do they spend time together, but it's unsupervised time."
Wallace told detective Melanee Holder during a June 7 interview that her relationship with the student was "much like a mother/daughter or big sister/little sister."
The student and her teammates described it as more. The student said her sexual encounters with Wallace took place in a Wal-Mart parking lot, in Wallace's Tampa Palms apartment and on their way home from out-of-town games.
The student's teammates, including her older sister, said they saw the two kissing and lying down naked together in Wallace's apartment.
Teammates recalled seeing flirtatious notes and text messages from Wallace to the student in which Wallace called her "sweetheart" and told her "I love you."
Wallace's attorney Joe Bodiford points out investigators have no record of the text messages or notes. The student told police she deleted the messages and destroyed all the notes from Wallace.
Detectives did find a May 2005 cell phone bill statement showing the student called Wallace's cell phone 53 times at all hours.
The Women's Sports Foundation offers a checklist for coaches entitled "Are You Crossing the Line with an Athlete?" It advises coaches to be wary of lengthy personal talks or home visits with an athlete.
Snyder said her organization wants to see a formal certification and training program for coaches that addresses all aspects of coaching, including coach-athlete relationships.
The United States does not currently have such a certification process.
"So you could become a coach and never get any training in appropriate behaviors and dealings with student athletes," Snyder said. "There's a whole lack of education."
Times staff writer Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org