For three weeks, a Tonganoxie High School football player had been delivering unwarranted hits at practice — too much, too often and, one day in particular, too unexpected.
After a quarterback protected by a green jersey had been flattened by yet another improper tackle, coach Mark Elston pulled the defender up off a pile of others around the QB and started screaming.
“I love him to death,” Elston would explain soon afterward, “but I’ve been on him for three weeks now to stop it, and I reached my limit.”
Someone across the street, in the parking lot of the Dollar General, reached a different limit of tolerance. The bystander witnessed the exchange and reported it to the Tonganoxie school district, which then suspended Elston the next day.
District officials never fully established whether the incident indicated a case of bullying or a simple act of outright aggression. By then the point was moot: Elston had resigned a day after the witness report, leaving folks to wonder both exactly what had happened and what would be an appropriate response.
Randy Weseman, serving this year as interim superintendent in Tonganoxie, admittedly regards the case as something of a “gray area,” something inherently common in the world of school sports.
“His behavior on the field, when he’s reprimanding a player, could be interpreted by some people as bullying because he’s in a position of power,” said Weseman, who spent 34 years in the Lawrence school district, including his last nine as superintendent. “On the other hand, that’s how coaches coach. In football, it’s physical in nature, and emotions run pretty high.
“You don’t expect someone in a classroom setting to be yelling at someone. But that’s not out of the ordinary on a football field.”
Such observations and differentiations can complicate relations between players and coaches, parents and district administrators.
“Is it bullying or is it motivation?” said Kevin Harrell, the Lawrence district’s division director for student intervention services. “There’s that line where athletic people work, trying to figure out just where things are.”
School plans, district policies and state regulations don’t differentiate between instances of bullying in the classroom or on the field. Bullying — cyber, verbal and physical — is not tolerated, no matter where or when it occurs.
But sports provides a different context and, therefore, can spur different interpretations of the same rules.
• Is a coach who continually criticizes a player’s lack of strength regarded as motivation in the weight room, or as a persistent personal attack on a student’s character?
• Is singling out a player to repeatedly run laps considered a strategy to boost endurance and, therefore, performance? Or is it a punitive move to demean someone who doesn’t measure up to classmates?
Such questions apparently came to a head last month, after some parents of students associated with the volleyball program at Eudora High School had complained about Coach Jill Stutler’s handling of players.
The Eudora school board ultimately sided with the school’s principal, who chose not to renew Stutler’s coaching contract for next year.
Mark Johnson, whose daughter played and went on to become an all-conference player under Stutler, said he appreciated Stutler’s work as a coach, describing her as an old-school, hard-nosed disciplinarian along the lines of legendary Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers and Paul “Bear” Bryant of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Sure, Johnson said, players ran laps, endured screams and participated in intense diving drills as part of Stutler’s drive for excellence, which resulted in a state title in 2006.
“I don’t call that bullying,” said Johnson, a retired officer who served in the U.S. Army’s special forces. “I call that coaching.”
But with the number of girls participating in volleyball at Eudora steadily declining in recent years, critics had argued that such tactics were inappropriate when taken to extremes.
Johnson doesn’t agree, but that isn’t the point.
“When you’re a disciplinarian, it’s a thin line,” Johnson said. “Especially these days.”
Belinda Rehmer, in her fifth year on the Eudora school board, declined to discuss Stutler’s coaching tactics, nor the board’s vote to uphold seeking a new coach for next year. But, in general, Rehmer maintains that bullying — any bullying — is not to be tolerated at school or during any school activities.
Sacrificing personal respect and dignity just to win on the playing field isn’t worth the pain and lasting effects that bullying can cause, she said.
“I believe there is a better way to get people to do what you want them to do without being intimidating,” Rehmer said. “However, there are many people who don’t — they believe you can’t get anyone motivated without being intimidating. …
“Is there a different test for bullying in sports? I think there is. I just don’t agree with it.”
At Free State High School in Lawrence, coaches regularly discuss the importance of not engaging in bullying activities, said Mike Hill, the Firebirds’ athletic director. Actions that might have been regarded as acceptable in the “old days” — taping a freshman football player to a goalpost, snapping a teammate with towels in the locker room or shaving someone’s head against their will before practice — are neither welcomed nor embraced in any team-building environment.
“The old adage ‘Boys will be boys’? That doesn’t work anymore,” said Hill, who also coaches baseball and serves as an assistant principal. “That’s just absolutely not acceptable anymore.”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining efforts to reduce bullying in the Lawrence school district. See the first part, on how schools combat bullying, here.