Coronado Community Has Rallied to Defend Many Embattled Coaches

Written By Kayla Jimenez, Voice of San Diego
Republished with permission

Editorial note: This image was taken by The Coronado Times. It was not created by Voice of San Diego.

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The backlash to the backlash against Coronado High School is in full swing.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey and a group of Coronado parents have condemned the California Interscholastic Federation’s decision to revoke the Coronado High basketball team’s Division 4A regional title after members of the crowd threw tortillas at the mostly Latino team from Escondido’s Orange Glen High. Bailey called the move a “rush to judgment,” according to City News Service. Coronado Unified, meanwhile, has voted to appeal CIF’s decision.

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Though the tortilla-throwing incident was shocking, the Coronado community’s defense of the team and its coach felt familiar. The Coronado school board has dealt with at least three other coaching scandals at the high school in the last five years. And in at least two of those instances, community members rallied to the coaches’ defense and pushed back against pressure to fire them.

In March 2017, a former Coronado Middle School student reported to school officials that the longtime head high school water polo coach, Randall Burgess, had molested him on the high school campus five years earlier, when he was 13. The same year, a Sweetwater student filed a suit against Coronado for alleging it knew Martin Gallegos, a Junior ROTC coach who she said sexually abused her, was a problem but didn’t warn the district against hiring him. Gallegos abruptly left Coronado in 2015. Coronado officials denied those claims and was later dropped from the suit. In 2020, part-time basketball coach Jordan Tyler Bucklew pleaded guilty to having an unlawful sexual relationship with an underage student.

Bucklew and Gallegos never returned to the district, but Burgess eventually returned to coaching water polo.

The cases, of course, feature some big differences. Three of the coaches were accused of sexual crimes, while Laaperi is under fire for actions on the basketball court. The coaches’ reactions to the incidents were different too: Burgess denied any wrongdoing, while Laaperi acknowledged the team’s actions were “unacceptable” and “racist in nature.” Bucklew and Gallegos pleaded guilty to crimes.

The coaches’ cases and the community reaction to them underscore Coronado’s record of maintaining decorated, sought-after athletics and extracurricular programs – and show just how determined some community members and school alumni are to protect them. At the same time, Coronado’s recent coaching decisions have negatively impacted some students and left administrators to make tough decisions on their employment.

Karl Mueller, the superintendent of Coronado Unified, declined an interview request for this story.

‘Rescind the Firing’

Soon after the Coronado High School basketball team’s big win, a video surfaced of Coronado students throwing tortillas at Orange Glen players. Witnesses also said Laaperi cursed at an Orange Glen high school coach, saying, “That’s why you don’t talk (expletive). Get your kids and get the (expletive) out of here,” the Union-Tribune reported.

Laaperi, who coached the Islanders since 2009 and won numerous championships with the team, addressed the incident on Twitter. “Unfortunately, a community member brought tortillas and distributed them which was unacceptable and racist in nature. I do not condone this behavior,” he wrote. But the apology did not do much to quiet the outrage and demands for accountability.

Several members of the California Legislature’s Latino Caucus, the San Diego NAACP, the League of United Latino American Citizens, the Racial Justice Coalition and other prominent figures outside the local Coronado community condemned Coronado players, coaches and fans.

The CIF yanked the team’s championship title, and placed other sanctions on the school, including requiring game management training for all coaches and administrators and a sportsmanship workshop for coaches, athletic directors, student athletes and administrators.

Last week, the Coronado Unified School district unanimously agreed to appeal that decision.

Mueller apologized to the Orange Glen community in a statement on June 19, describing the team members’ conduct as “unsportsmanlike” and “reprehensible.”

He said swift action would be taken to address all those involved.

Then Muller wrote in a letter to the school community the district would “disperse consequences where appropriate” in order to hold itself accountable to district policy. He wrote that the district “remains steadfast in (its) determination to create an environment in which all students feel safe, valued and respected” and that the district will “strength (its) commitment to stand against acts of bias” and “reinforce anti-bullying and anti-harassment efforts” within the school community.

Facing pressure from politicians, racial justice advocates and others in the regional sports community, Coronado Unified School District Board took a top-down approach and voted unanimously to fire Laaperi as coach at a special board meeting.

Local community members in a Facebook group called Coronado Happenings downplayed the racial implications of the tortilla-throwing incident, and some people at the school board meeting expressed disapproval of the district and superintendent for not fully investigating the case before issuing a statement to the public, determining the actions to be racist and firing Laaperi.

But the board disagreed. “Even if they were not intended as racist, we cannot ignore that our guests, these children who played their hearts out for a championship, felt attacked because they were Hispanic,” Coronado Board Trustee Whitney Antrim said during the meeting.

Laaperi is also a teacher and has worked at Coronado’s Silver Strand Elementary School, the Union-Tribune reported. Mueller declined to tell VOSD whether Laaperi’s teaching job will be affected.

Many community members have spoken out in support of Laaperi.

In a Union-Tribune op-ed, Stephen Johnson, a Coronado High School alum, wrote that the school board should “rescind the firing of the coach and it and the principal should publicly apologize.” He suggested Chris Featherly, the coach of the Orange Glen team, should join in the call for the reversal of Laaperi’s abrupt dismissal, too. Laaperi declined an interview request for this story.

Some parents from a group calling itself We the Parents Coronado and Bailey, the mayor, rallied last week, calling on the school board to publicly apologize to the basketball team, issue a retraction and withhold future judgments until an investigation is complete.

“This is eerily reminiscent of a similar debate in Coronado a few years ago over a fired water polo coach,” Johnson wrote.

The board’s quick move to fire Laaperi from his coaching position at Coronado High School does, in some ways, mirror what happened with Burgess.

Support – and Money – Flowed to Accused Coach

In March 2017, a former Coronado Middle School student reported to school officials that Burgess had molested him on the high school campus five years earlier, when he was 13. The student filed a claim against the Coronado Unified School District over the alleged abuse, seeking damages.

School district officials promptly placed Burgess on paid leave from his coaching and teaching positions, and told him they would investigate the claim, which Burgess has adamantly denied. A winding saga ensued that left Burgess on paid leave from his P.E. teaching position at Coronado High School for more than 200 days and led to multiple court cases – some from Burgess and one from Voice of San Diego, seeking records detailing Coronado Unified’s investigation into the claims against Burgess.

A vocal contingent of the Coronado school community supported Burgess throughout his case. Records previously released to Voice of San Diego show a slew of parents wrote emails to school officials in support of Burgess. More than 1,000 people signed a petition addressed to the Coronado school board to reinstate Burgess. (Others accused him of making inappropriate comments to their children or complained to the district about keeping him on staff at the school, the records show.)

In some cases, community members emphasized the team’s success in emphasizing why supporting Burgess was important.

“Randy Burgess has epitomized these qualities throughout his thirty four-year teaching career with CUSD. He is well known for his legendary coaching record; a 74% win record, 700+ total wins, 19 GIF titles, 16 CIF San Diego Section Players of the Year, and three Olympians. Mr. Burgess’s actions have garnered much recognition and praise; he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions in November of last year and has served our country as a coach for athletes on the international stage,” the petition read.

Alumni recounted how Burgess contributed to their athletic successes in emails of support to Coronado school leaders at the time.

“I was a three-time team captain for the CHS water polo team, a two-time team captain for the CHS swim team, and went on to play at Stanford University, where I was also team captain, and on the US National Team for five years. I mention this because my water polo successes have been foundational to my career as a physician, and Coach Burgess is one of the most important reasons for my water polo successes. He modeled holding oneself to high expectations, fought for us and with us to help us realize our potential, and taught us what it means to be truly be committed to a team, a family, a goal,” one person wrote.

At the end of the months-long investigation, in November 2017, Burgess returned to both his teaching coaching roles. The local community even funded part of his legal fees in his case against the district in November 2019.

It is still unclear what exactly came of that investigation, and Coronado Unified has sent mixed messages about whether a robust investigation was performed at all.

In a letter reinstating Burgess, Coronado Unified Assistant Superintendent Rita Meyers recommended he “be sensitive” to community concerns regarding the allegations involving his conduct, and not be alone with any student “unless absolutely necessary for the health, safety or welfare for that particular student.” If future issues arose, she wrote, the school district would continue to consider “the safety and welfare of its students among its highest priorities,” and investigate and take action if another student raised misconduct allegations.

Burgess is now retired. He is receiving $6,073.18 per month in retirement benefits, or $72,878.16 a year, state pension officials previously told Voice of San Diego.

In 2017, Coronado High dealt with accusations it didn’t do enough to protect students from another possibly abusive coach.

An Abrupt Departure, Followed by More Trouble

The Sweetwater Union High School District agreed in 2018 to pay a former student more than $2 million to settle claims it negligently hired and retained a Navy Junior ROTC substitute teacher who pleaded guilty to statutory rape from Coronado High School after the student filed a suit against him, according to a copy of the agreement previously obtained by Voice of San Diego. (The Junior ROTC program is taught by retired Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard officers and enlisted military personnel and “emphasizes citizenship and leadership development … maritime heritage, the significance of sea power and naval topics such as the fundamentals of naval operations, seamanship, navigation and meteorology,” according to its website.)

Martin Gallegos, a retired Marine and former Junior ROTC instructor who helped coordinate the drill team, was highly regarded by his colleagues at Coronado, according to court documents. But months before the 2015 school year ended, Gallegos abruptly left his position.

Gallegos, who transferred to Mar Vista High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 2016 stemming from his involvement with a student, who was 17 at the time, in his program and was sentenced to a year in jail and three years of probation.

The former student filed a lawsuit alleging the district should have known better about ongoing sexual harassment and abuse by Gallegos. Her lawsuit originally included Coronado Unified School District, and said that at Coronado High, Gallegos was accused of sexual misconduct by another former Junior ROTC student and abruptly left his position. The lawsuit alleged Coronado Unified knowingly passed Gallegos along to Sweetwater after releasing him from his full-time teaching position.

Coronado disputed that claim. The district said in court records that officials never spoke to anyone, including Sweetwater Union, about Gallegos’s employment at the school.

Coronado was eventually dropped from the suit. Coronado Unified officials previously declined to comment on why Gallegos left the school in the middle of the school year.

In court records, numerous Coronado High alumni and community members wrote in support of Gallegos. Many noted the various awards he helped the school win and how he helped distinguish the program.

“While only ten percent of units became annually distinguished, his unit was distinguished during every year of his employment. His cadets had the highest rate of any other schools in their district in obtaining Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarships to universities and academies,” one person noted, according to court records.

Basketball Coach Pleads Guilty

Bucklew pleaded guilty to a felony count of unlawful sex with a minor in February last year. He was sentenced to three years of probation in December.

When the allegations came to light, Mueller wrote in a statement that the district’s priority is “teaching and learning while nurturing a safe and supportive environment for those within our shared community,” and said it “followed policy and protocol including cooperation with Coronado Police Department to protect the safety and security of District students and staff.”

Bucklew’s case is an anomaly in some ways: He was an assistant coach – not the face of the program – and once he was accused of a crime, it doesn’t appear anyone publicly rushed to his defense.

Written By
Kayla Jimenez