Sanctions limit Mira Costa baseball coach’s involvement with team [UPDATED]
This article has been updated with additional comments from Principal Dale, Coach Olson, Aaron Medina and a Manhattan Beach Little League parent.
A group of parents and the coaches of the Mira Costa High School baseball program are playing hardball. But it’s not on the diamond.
Head varsity coach Cassidy Olson will be limited in his duties for the first half of the baseball season after a review of the program that was conducted following numerous allegations from parents that included bullying, physical endangerment, verbal, mental and emotional abuse.
In a letter sent to parents in December, Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale stated: “We have concluded our review of the baseball program and wanted to inform you that Coach Olson’s coaching activities will be restricted for the first half of the upcoming baseball season. From now through March 24, Coach Olson will coach during sixth period only but will not be present at scrimmages, games, tournaments or any other team activities that take place outside of the regular school day. On March 25, he will return to his full coaching duties.”
Some parents feel the sanctions levied against Olsen were a mere slap on the wrist and continue efforts seeking Olson’s resignation or removal from the baseball program. The situation could be resolved at the Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s (MBUSD) Board meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 6 as both sides are attempting to place the matter on the agenda.
Olson supporters will state their case to have the sanctions dropped so players can return to normal practices and properly prepare for the upcoming season, which is scheduled to start Feb. 23 with a double header against Santa Margarita.
Manhattan Beach Attorney Joseph Di Monda, who was retained by a handful of parents seeking the dismissal of Olson, sent another complaint to the MBUSD on Wednesday, Jan. 16.
Di Monda said he is considering filing four additional complaints and looking at options to go to the State Board of Education. He made clear that lack of playing time is not an issue.
A letter sent by Dale to Di Monda on Dec. 17 stated: “In response to your complaint, we conducted an extensive review of the Mira Costa baseball program based upon your allegations, which included, but was not limited to, interviewing a large number of students and adults who may have possessed information relevant to your complaint… We determined that, though the evidence did not support a finding of physical, mental or emotional abuse, certain allegations were supported by the evidence gathered.”
“I was told by an administrator that the report generated from the player interviews recommended that I immediately be reinstated,” Olson said. “My union and some of the parents have repeatedly asked the administration for this report and they have refused to release it. I just want the truth of what the players said to come out and for them to get back to playing baseball.”
Olson is hoping to return to his full duties sooner than later.
“In light of these very serious allegations, I’m very grateful to Athletic Director Don Morrow and Vice Principal Ian Drummond for taking the time to interview every single player in the baseball program,” Olson said. “I am satisfied that this thorough investigation and the report that it generated completely cleared me of these charges and allowed me to continue coaching.
“Unfortunately, I feel that restricting my coaching duties for half the year is only going to hurt the players. I understand the position the district is in when a single parent threatens litigation but it’s too bad that a small minority can make up false claims and get in the way of what us coaches and the players want to do, just play baseball.”
Although Dale’s letter did not state the reasons for the restrictions handed down to Olson, sources say there were three issues that warranted the sanctions: Threatening to lower a player’s grade if they did not sell 10 Christmas trees during the baseball program’s annual fundraiser (aside from the issue of fundraising, it is normal for high school athletic teams to begin their practices during the final, or 6th, period of school enabling the student-athletes to acquire necessary credit for physical education while obtaining an ‘A’ in the class).
Second, Olson’s handling of players’ injuries and physical needs was criticized, including his alleged attitude toward players after they submitted notes from their doctors.
Lastly, Olson allegedly created a climate of fear.
Geoff Wells, Booster Club President of the Mira Costa baseball program, supports Olson and would like to see practices resume as soon as possible.
“We’d like to see the restrictions reduced for the kids’ sake,” Wells said. “We could lose about 12 games out of approximately a 30-game schedule. We have 12 seniors on the team and six are being recruited by colleges.”
Wells said that the baseball program raised about $30,000 with its Christmas tree fundraiser and that Olson has been instrumental in improving the field and facilities for the players and community as well.
Olson requested an emergency meeting for baseball parents and players for the evening of Jan. 10 at the Rotary Club in Hermosa Beach in order to provide information on the situation.
In a show of solidarity, his assistant varsity coaches decided to shut down practices after 6th period, which normally run from 1:59-2:55 p.m.
At the present time, there is no Plan B for the team to be coached after regular school hours.
“The meeting called by Olsen is an example of his arrogance and insubordination,” Di Monda said. “It (the meeting) violated the sanctions imposed on Olson.
“If no practices are held by Feb. 6, the District should fire all of the assistant coaches,” Di Monda said. “(MBUSD Superintendent) Mike Matthews has to take a stand. You can’t have lunatics running the asylum.”
Despite the allegations against Olson, his coaching style has been appreciated by many former players and parents. Di Monda admits that there are numerous parents and players who have had good experiences with Olson, but the allegations concerning certain players cannot be overlooked.
Kyle Demarco was an All-Bay League shortstop for the Mustangs and, after playing at Harbor College, is now playing Division 1 baseball at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
“When I was a senior at Mira Costa, Olson was in his first year as a head coach,” Demarco said. “We had a talented team and he was hard on us, but we knew that it takes discipline to win. Playing for Coach Olson was a good experience for me.”
Derek Largent graduated in 2011 after playing infield, outfield and pitching for Mira Costa.
“My experience playing for Cassidy Olson was nothing but positive,” said Largent, who is a starting linebacker on San Diego State’s football team. “He never crossed boundaries and his criticism was positive. He was strict, but he was preparing his players to compete at the collegiate level.”
Olson’s fall from grace with some parents began during the 2011 season when, according to the May 20, 2011 online edition of Mira Costa’s school newspaper La Vista, “he benched several players for the last five games of the season after they confessed during an April 28 practice to smoking marijuana.”
It was Olson’s alleged mishandling of the situation that infuriated parents who accused the coach of making the entire team run until players wrote down the names of the suspected pot smokers.
A report compiled by Di Monda detailed allegations. One parent, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution against the son, in a stated: “(Mr. Olson) forced the players to anonymously accuse other players with drug use and believed whatever was written without getting any proof. The players had to run until they wrote names on pieces of paper. Mr. Olson lied when he said the players were not forced to run. The running was enforced by his assistant coach, Aaron Medina. (Olson) chose not to believe evidence that showed that some players who didn’t admit to drug use had used drugs in the past and during the season. Since those players were not suspended, they were rewarded for lying. (Olson) contacted college coaches and discussed what should have been a private matter with them. His actions cost some players the opportunity to get a quality education at outstanding universities. His actions have permanently affected relationships within families, between families, and between some of the boys.”
Medina strongly denies the allegation made by the parent that he enforced the running of the players.
Olson also has denied such allegations, but said it was inappropriate to address such matters publically. Some former players believe the marijuana incident was overstated but deeply impacted Olson.
“I feel that the off-campus incident hardened Coach Olson a bit,” said Demarco, who would often return to Mira Costa to watch baseball games and support the program.
Over the next year, more allegations grew from the incident, and on July 9, 2012 Joyce Karlin Fahey, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, sent a letter to parents on behalf of a group of parents who have or recently have had a player in the Mira Costa baseball program.
The letter addressed “Olson’s numerous violations of the Code of Conduct and Expectations for Coaches” and included a form that could be returned by those who supported the group’s demand that Olson either resign or be removed from his coaching duties.
Each parent was assigned a random number so the parent or player could not be identified when the information, which included detailed experiences, was presented to the Administration.
Thirty seven parents responded in support of Olson’s resignation/removal.
In early August, Olson sent an email to those involved in the Mira Costa baseball program, acknowledging his awareness of the letter sent by Fahey.
In Olson’s email, he stated: “I realize that people will always have difference of opinions on coaching styles, and my coaching staff and I are open to constructive criticism. However, none of the coaches or myself have been contacted by Mrs. Fahey to discuss any of these allegations nor are we aware of any incidents. We have three credentialed teachers on our coaching staff that are required by law to report abuse so we take these accusations very seriously.
“What is most important to me is that you feel your players are safe in the Mira Costa baseball program. I suggest you ask our players if they have ever felt abused and, if so, I want to address it immediately in a meeting with the school administration.
“I can promise you that no players has ever, or will ever, be punished for voicing these types of concerns. If anyone wants an individual meeting or a group meeting please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Di Monda proceeded to meet with – and presented an 11-page letter to – Matthews and Dale on Sept. 13.
The letter included excerpts from comments made by parents, citing numerous violations by Olson of Mira Costa’s “Code of Conduct and Expectations of Coaches.”
In contradiction to treating students with “dignity and respect,” Olson was accused of intimidation and coercion, including verbal abuse and name calling, in order to impose his will on the players.
Parent H7424 wrote: “With bullying, intimidation and hyper-negativity, (Olson) has created an atmosphere so toxic and fearful, any joy of the game for our son and most of the other boys has vanished. He has systematically demoralized our kids, trampled on their self-esteem and eroded their confidence. Being coached by Olson is like living under a dictatorship. When it’s not going his way, he gets crazy angry, screams, uses profanity, and sometimes singles out and humiliates players.”
More serious allegations were made that Olson routinely throws out or tears up physician’s notes without reading them and has ignored medically certified special needs of players. Another parent accused Olson of “bullying, humiliating, and insulting” a special needs student-athlete.
Di Monda said the state considers making an injured athlete play corporal punishment. Di Monda’s letter stated Olson’s contradiction to establishing and modeling “fair play, sportsmanship and appropriate conduct.”
Di Monda’s letter also stated: “Mr. Olson’s conduct also places the Manhattan Beach Unified School District (MBUSD) at risk of paying damages to students whose parents may choose to bring a lawsuit because of Mr. Olson’s behavior and/or practices.
Olson was also accused of consistently holding 4-5 hour practices five days a week, limiting time the players have to complete homework assignments.
Parent C91212 wrote: “To say this coach has ‘control issues’ would fall substantially short of an accurate portrayal… I have marveled at his expertise in how he so subtly inflicts his dominating, bullying and controlling tactics to prey on a community of vulnerable, young athletes and their good intentioned parents who ‘too’ desperately want to just ‘play ball.’…”
According to parents, they were told that Matthews opted not to read the complaints because they were “anonymous,” even though Di Monda told the superintendent that he and Fahey knew the names of all of the parents who responded to Fahey’s letter. District policy allows Matthews to accept “anonymous” complaints if he chooses to do so.
One parent, who also wished to remain anonymous, compared the situation to the Sandusky scandal at Penn State University in which the administration did not act following allegations. “The shocking factor that cannot be ignored is that the Principal of Mira Costa High School, Ben Dale, was approached by countless families (including ourselves) regarding Coach Olson’s abusive tactics… and the allegations were summarily dismissed as petty complaints.”
Manhattan Beach Little League (MBLL) is a vital feeder program to the Mira Costa baseball program and has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years including its Senior Little League All-Star team that reached the 2010 World Series in Bangor, Maine.
After serving on the MBLL Board for a number of years including one as president, Thomas Tyrer knows most the players and families involved with Mira Costa baseball and is deeply concerned about the current – and future – situation of the school’s athletic programs.
“You have very affluent parents who literally spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on private coaches for their boys (and girls) from the time they are six or seven,” Tyrer said. “No matter the sport, these children then play club and travel ball, oftentimes for the same private coaches who teach the lessons.
“Private coaches have a financial incentive to continue to tell the parents how terrific their kid is and that with just some more training, they are destined for stardom. When that occurs, you have some parents who are used to spending lots of money, figure they can make financial contributions to the public school program and ensure their player continues to receive preferential treatment in return. In effect, they’re buying off the program.
“Part of what any coach does is encourage his players. And so when a private coach who’s trying to be encouraging tells the player he’s doing great and needs to play up another level, the parent dutifully reports back to the public high school coach that his or her child must play varsity as a freshman. There’s another pair of parents involved in the Mira Costa situation who’ve done exactly this.
“The three parents who want to rid Mira Costa of Cass Olson aren’t interested in Cass Olson at all. He’s acceptable to collateral damage, and so are his wife and his one-year-old son. What’s truly at issue is the role of money and influence, taken to their extremes, in the management of a youth sports program.”
“This has never been about mistreating the kids, it’s actually a scary trend,” Olson said. “The principal (Dale) told me there is at least one parent group trying to get rid off all 23 varsity coaches at Mira Costa. As the parent of a 1-year-old in this community I worry for our future. I would hate to see Manhattan Beach become a community where the players whose parents have lawyers automatically play. It’s not fair to the hard working kids who deserve to play.”
Many parents still support Olson, however, as evidenced by the Booster Club’s advocacy on his behalf. He has coached in the South Bay for more than decade and became a coveted head coach candidate during his time as an assistant coach at Mira Costa. After serving six seasons as an assistant coach for Mira Costa skipper Mike Neily, Olson was given the head coaching job at Redondo Union High School prior to the 2009 season after long-time coach Tim Ammentorp stepped down.
When a discrepancy in the wording of the school district’s hiring policy led to a threat of legal action, the RBUSD decided to allow Olson to finish out the season and bring in Brady Thurman, a physical education teacher at Parras Middle School in Redondo Beach.
It was determined that since Thurman was an employee of the RBUSD, he should have been offered the job first.
Olson wasn’t off the diamond for long, however, as Mira Costa fired Neily to allow Olson to take over the Mustang baseball program, welcoming him with open arms.
In Olson’s only year at Redondo, he tried to rebuild a struggling Sea Hawk program with fundraisers and a more active Booster Club. The team finished with a 10-19 record during Olson’s one year at the helm.
Meanwhile, to the north, Neily’s Mustangs enjoyed a season of 20 wins with only 12 losses. He had recorded over 300 wins and had led his teams to the CIF playoffs in 16 of his 18 years as a head coach at the high school level.
“To this day, I still don’t know why I was fired,” Neily said.
Olson has posted a record of 53-43 in his three seasons as head coach at Mira Costa, capturing the Bay League championship in 2010 and finishing as runner-up in 2012 with an 18-14 overall record.