Editor’s note: Approval of a contract renewal for coaches Lindsey Gilstrap and Nan Brisko will be on the agenda at the school board meeting starting at 5:30 p.m. tonight at Ray Bjork.
By TROY SHOCKLEY
It’s happening again.
Two years ago, complaints from parents triggered an official investigation of the Capital High School girls soccer program.
In a letter sent to the school board parents claimed that their complaint was not all about playing time. Indeed, there were other concerns detailed, but coaching decisions and playing time were among the first items listed, and they were brought up repeatedly, along with coaching decisions.
In the end, attorney Beth O’Halloran made a finding of “no misconduct” by coach Nan Brisko. Also included in that report: The phrase “patently false.”
This cost the Helena School District $12,650.
Now, one set of parents involved in starting that investigation instigated another one.
Repeated, written requests for the official complaint were not answered by the district office. But using the summary of findings as a basis, the accusations include retaliation; unsafe practice conditions; departure from expected standards; and failure to report allegations of bullying, intimidation and harassment.
Again, O’Halloran was called upon to investigate the program, interviewing players, coaches and parents. The investigation – which, combined with the first, has now cost taxpayers a reported $30,869 – resulted in many claims being classified as “unsubstantiated.” O’Hallaran did, however, decide there was information enough to substantiate some level of a departure from standards and a failure to report.
According to the summary of findings, the coaching staff “marginalized the complaining player over the remainder of the season, reinforced the supporter/detractor divide among the players, perpetuated the perception of the complaining player as a ‘bully’ among players and parents, and generated similar spectator attitudes toward the complaining player, resulting in the calls for retribution against the family generally for raising issues in the first place.”
That, however, is vehemently disputed by coaches Lindsey Gilstrap and Brisko, who retained an attorney of their own to draft an official response. That letter was set to be delivered to Superintendent Jack Copps on Tuesday afternoon.
A copy of that letter has been obtained by The Montana Radio Company.
There are, Gilstrap says, many issues that the coaches’ lawyer, took issue with in writing that letter.
“She took issue with Optiz not being interviewed, that the same investigator shouldn’t have been used twice … that we provided all sorts of documentation that she could have utilized – but failed to – to come to an appropriate decision.
“Basically, we’re asking the district to reject the investigator’s findings, expunge any reference to these adverse findings from our record, ensure that the adverse findings have no negative impact whatsoever on decisions related to us, and retain us as coaches of the Capital High School girls varsity program.”
Copps, contacted multiple times by The Montana Radio Company, declined to comment.
The coaches both say they had already detailed their concerns with the findings and the complaining parents in a 10-page letter they co-authored and sent to Copps dated Feb. 11, 2018.
Using records kept throughout the season, the coaches say they were, in that letter, able to dissect what they say are errors, mischaracterizations, and incomplete information.
One of the substantiated claims, according to the summary of findings, was that Brisko “refrain(ed) from coaching or communicating with the complaining player,” identified as Player 3. The coaches consulted with Activities Director Jim Opitz on how to best address the player complaint, and were advised that the best solution for all parties would be for Brisko to take a step back and for all communication to come through coach Gilstrap.
“It was,” Gilstrap says, “the direct advice of our superior. And the investigator had that information.”
No further complaints were leveled following the implementation of that strategy.
Despite being a key part of any complaints leveled – not to mention his role as their direct supervisor – Opitz was never interviewed for the purpose of this investigation.
That oversight alone, Gilstrap says, should raise a red flag.
“We have significant concerns about the integrity of the investigation,” she said. “And we are challenging the findings as the direct result of that.”
Contacted by The Montana Radio Company and offered a chance to offer insight on the investigation, namely how the people interviewed to reach a conclusion were determined, O’Halloran declined.
She said she would like to “discuss the findings and the bases (sic) for the findings with you, unfortunately, any details of the investigation which are not public can’t be disclosed based on federal law and state law privacy considerations.”
Opitz also declined to comment on the matter, directing all questions to Copps. Capital High principal Brett Zanto, similarly, said that it was decided that the Superintendent would be the one to make any official comments.
Throughout the season, the coaches were regularly in communication with both Opitz and Zanto.
Zanto, however – another member of administration in a supervisory role over the two coaches – was never interviewed by O’Halloran.
“The principal was at our games. He was present on the sidelines for a lot of our interactions,” Brisko said.
Also missed in the interview process was the coach of the boys team at Capital, Paul Patterson. No one else from the boys coaching staff or team was interviewed in either investigation, which strikes Patterson as strange.
“The boys and my staff were never asked about anything,” Patterson said. “If you really want to assess a program like the girls … anybody – if you wanted to assess my program, the girls would have been a good barometer. Because we live with each other just about. There’s two hours a day, because we all practice basically at the same time. … We’re at every game together. When we’re at an away place, we’re in contact with each other, we see each other, we’re at each other’s games. I’ve heard their halftime talk as many times as I’ve heard my own. So I just found it a little bit strange if you’re going to talk to everybody and you want to do a thorough investigation, why wouldn’t you start with the boys?”
Working so closely together, Patterson’s team would likely also be witness to any inappropriate actions by coaches or players in the girls program.
And inappropriate behavior is, as it turns out, important as well. Because the summary of findings claims that the coaching staff largely ignored or minimized bullying by Player 3.
The coaches dispute the characterization of the actions that they were aware of. Much of what was occurring was discovered only as a result of the investigation.
When it comes to what they were aware of, a couple of rude comments, Gilstrap and Brisko say, doesn’t reach that benchmark. Bad behavior, they say, is something that can and should often be handled internally – which is what they believed they had done.
The coaches agree that with the constant fear of a potential complaint being lodged after every comment or action, the team’s chemistry and attitude was negatively impacted last season, a year after the Bruins made a surprise run to the State AA championship game, ultimately finishing as runner-up.
This isn’t all that surprising when the unsubstantiated claims are examined.
Among them, an innocuous back-and-forth prank during a team rafting trip involving the entire team which was later viewed through the lens of retaliation.
Later, as the state’s athletic programs were dealing with trying to practice during a horrendous fire season, an accusation of unsafe practice conditions was made. This despite the coaches following district procedure, checking air quality reports before and during practice – they were well within acceptable parameters – and explicit instructions for players to sit out or pause if breathing became an issue.
It should be noted as well that on the day in question, Aug. 28, 2017, the Capital High football team and boys soccer teams both practiced, as did the Helena High soccer teams and the Helena Youth Soccer Association teams.
Arguments are also made about retaliation in the form of a lesser role on the team and less playing time. This, though, ignores the fact that there are multiple players at any one position and only so many starting spots available.
For his part, Patterson says all he’s ever seen from the two coaches has been positive and fair.
“It appears to me all the girls are treated pretty much the same way. When there’s a conversation, a tough conversation, that needs to be had, it appears it’s done in a situation that it’s away from the rest of the team so you’re not embarrassing.
“You could go visit half a dozen other practices in town – including our own – and see lots of behavior that’s probably more stringent … I think the girls are sometimes surprised at the way we talk to the boys. Because it’s just a little bit different beast, boys vs. girls.”
And the ultimate question: Would Patterson have concerns about a daughter playing for Gilstrap and Brisko?
“Oh, gosh, no. Oh, heavens, no. I think what those two girls bring to our program is something special,” Patterson said. “They’re qualified, they played the game, they’re good coaches. I would have my daughter play for those two any time.
“I guess the thing is, in the first go-around, if you’re unhappy, I can see, OK, let’s try it again. But I don’t get the waiting two years. Was it OK last year because they won second at State and now it’s not? That’s another thing that baffles me.”
The coaches have a team they believe can make another run at a state title in the upcoming season. But they worry about the precedent being set in the last several years in regards to parents being able to cause such disruption in a program.
While defending themselves against what they believe to be an unfair attack is important, both coaches also say that they worry about what the last three years say about the processes in place in the Helena School District in terms of just what and who is able to trigger an investigation such as this.
“The absence of a comprehensive complaint process,” Gilstrap said, “leaves coaches in this district extremely vulnerable to parents’ complaints.”
The last time this happened, a majority of the school board went against the recommendation of the administration, and the investigative attorney, and voted not to renew their contracts.
They reapplied for their jobs – only two others applied in addition – and were re-hired.
They put themselves back in a potential line of fire, they say, for a very simple reason.
“Principle,” Brisko said. “Because it’s the right thing to do. You can’t let the corruptness of what happened win. It’s the principle of what’s right and what’s wrong. And I feel like to teach my kids that, to teach the soccer players on the team that, you have to stand up for what’s right, regardless of what personal problems it causes.
“And we do care about the girls. There’s a lot of good kids out there. And we are good coaches. So why not be of service to those kids and hopefully create a positive, uplifting environment for them to be in. And to teach them those values, and about hard work and about being strong women.”
Gilstrap echoed those sentiments.
“We talk to our players a lot about how you respond to adversity defines your character. And we were faced with a very difficult decision last time on which avenue we should take,” she said. “Do we come back or do we just step away? And ultimately, we looked at it as ‘What’s in the best interest of the program, and what’s the right thing to do?’
“Ultimately, that was to reapply for the position and to come back and to lead by example. And that was very, very important to us because we do care a lot about this program and the players in this program.”