The termination of a popular high school pole vault coach amid allegations of inappropriate critical text messages to a student-athlete overshadowed what was expected to be an otherwise routine evening of business for the Pleasanton school board.
A dozen people, including coach Douglas Beck, parents and students, turned out for a special public hearing, held before the board's closed-session meeting Tuesday night, to protest Beck's dismissal on grounds of harassment -- a rare open hearing on a district personnel matter, conducted in public at Beck's request.
The board ultimately sided with district staff, upholding Beck’s release in a 4-1 vote, with Board President Valerie Arkin casting the sole dissenting vote.
“There’s much more than just talking about pole vault,” Trustee Mark Miller said of the text messages at the center of the dismissal. “There’s badmouthing of officials and all kinds of things that’s going on, and I want our coaches to be role models.”
Beck, who worked as a contracted coach for pole vault at Amador Valley and Foothill high schools, defended himself during the hearing, saying health concerns were at the heart of the issue with the student and the welfare of his athletes is tantamount.
“Their health and safety is the most important thing to me. I won’t sacrifice the health and safety of my vaulters for anything.” Beck said. “My goal for them has always been for as many of them as possible to be happy with their experience and their achievements, and I really wish to continue to do that.”
Beck was dismissed from his coaching position early last month after a female student that he had been coaching on a track-and-field team filed a complaint against him.
According to Julio Hernandez, district assistant superintendent of human resources, Beck sent a number of “unprofessional, inappropriate, threatening, disruptive, disparaging and harassing” text messages last year to the girl about her taking private vaulting lessons from another coach.
The text messages were not shared publicly at the meeting but were described as “centered on attacking and disparaging other pole vault coaches, threatening the complainant to stop attending lessons with other coaches” and other behavior deemed “inappropriate.” None of the comments were sexual or violent in nature, according to the district.
Hernandez said “the times of day and the number of texts that disrupted the complainant's school time” were also problematic. Beck sent texts early in the morning before school and sometimes up to 10 p.m.
They also took issue with Beck coaching rival students from Washington High School in Fremont on Pleasanton Unified School District property.
A group of parents, students and colleagues attended the board meeting to advocate on Beck’s behalf, several weeks after circulating a support petition signed by more than 200 people.
They called Beck a “needle in a haystack” among pole vault coaches, and lauded his reputation for prioritizing safety and technique above all else. They also disagreed with the district’s characterization of Beck’s behavior and said the text messages didn’t rise to the level of harassment.
Jonah James, a senior pole vaulter at Amador, said Beck “has helped me improve more than any other coach” and that the complainant has a history of “undermining” Beck’s coaching. James worries that he won’t qualify for a collegiate team without Beck’s help.
“It jeopardizes every other vaulter’s future,” James said. “I’m currently in position for college recruitment and scholarships are based on my coach’s immediate reinstatement. Coach Beck knows my vaulting technique better than anyone else.”
The student who filed the complaint did not speak to the board Tuesday night.
According to Beck, he blocked the student from texting him just before Christmas and said the student filed a complaint to retaliate against him because he refused to let her vault in order to prevent any injuries. He said he became concerned that her technique was declining due to inadequate private training with another coach over the past year, and there was another issue with the student asking Beck to coach a friend of hers.
“The whole reason for her complaint was the fact that she wanted me to coach her friend,” Beck told the Weekly after the board voted to release him. “Most of the texts were about that. I just didn’t want to have her shin splints hurt so bad. It was a health issue.”
For their part, Miller and other trustees called the text messages sent by Beck “really inappropriate for an adult.”
But Arkin questioned whether the same discussion would have been controversial held face-to-face.
“I think if we put this in the frame of if this were a conversation in person, would we find it inappropriate, having a conversation in person about injuries and things like that?” Arkin said. “I’m sorry, I have a hard time with this one saying it’s inappropriate.”
Miller disagreed, saying he couldn’t “imagine my son’s music instructor having those levels of conversation with him” -- a comment soon before the board cast its 4-1 vote to dismiss Beck.