From the Catbird Seat...Due process versus the court of public opinion


Our dirty laundry is hanging out, and it's flapping in the breeze.

If you haven't heard by now, Duluth attorney Bob Mathias, representing the complainants against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys head hockey coach Dave Esse, released a statement last Friday to the local newspaper and other area media outlets.

It makes public some of the allegations in the complaint heard by the Cloquet School Board last month. The statement attempts to convict Esse in the court of public opinion.

Next Monday, the board may hear more on the complaint and may decide to take action upon it.

The allegations - directed against both Esse and his staff in the press release, but considered only against Esse by the School Board - are serious. Esse has strenuously denied them.

Yet it's the ending of the Mathias letter, which has nothing to do with Esse, that has drawn a reaction from Cloquet Schools Superintendent Ken Scarbrough. And this reaction offers a clue as to the best way forward in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

"It is hoped for and expected that the School Board will conduct a full and impartial investigation," the statement said. "Also, it is hoped for and expected that any board member who has a personal relationship with Esse or members of his staff will recuse themselves from such an important endeavor."

Scarbrough's reaction was to the point. The board will not be drawn.

"The difference between what the law firm did and what we have to do is that we have to follow a process that will protect everyone's rights and use due process," he said. "Others might try to use public communication."

"The School Board are elected representatives," Scarbrough added. "They have to represent those who elected them. Nobody is going to say that you can't represent the people who elected you. We have laws and policies that we follow so no one is going to control our process. We will do [the evaluation] according to our policies and state statutes."

This is a good thing, because it protects everyone involved. For one thing, the complainants have remained anonymous through this process.

As for the decision-making, this is why you have a school board. They're elected to make decisions.

If the allegations are found to have a foundation, the board will do what it needs to do. If the board finds them untrue, they will again do what they need to do.

They are subject to community oversight in their decision-making - and again, that's a good thing. It's how the process of representative government was designed to work.

But the board needs to be allowed to perform the task it was elected to perform.

And now the complainants, who were described for the first time in the Mathias letter as plural, have decided to go public with some of their concerns. It brings to a head an issue that is becoming more and more common, not just here in Cloquet but all around the area.

I now know of at least five coaches who have had issues of varying degrees with parents in their programs - in both boys and girls hockey in this region - this winter alone. I've spoken with three of those coaches personally.

One even joked to me (or maybe he wasn't joking) that high school coaches need their own union.

The existence of the Mathias letter is reported in brief elsewhere in this issue. It's reported in brief rather than in full because the items in the complaint still remain allegations and no legal action has been filed.

But if you look around the area, the undercurrent isn't healthy. The issue of coach/parent relations has gotten to the point where there's even a bill in the Minnesota House that would make it illegal for a school district to fire a varsity coach based solely on a parental complaint.

State Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) wrote House File 0984, co-sponsored by House Education Finance Committee Chair Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth). Urdahl told Forum Communications last week that the bill was designed to shield coaches from complaints about playing time or play-calling.

Perhaps cognizant of this bill, the Mathias letter is careful to note that the complaint against Esse does not deal with those issues. But again, the undercurrents are daunting.

Parents want to support their kids and want them treated fairly. Coaches want the freedom to coach. The natural friction between the two in a popular sport that is expensive for parents to support is now boiling over.

As I said before, our dirty laundry is now flapping in the breeze. The best thing we can do is let the process take its course and protect the rights of all involved: complainants and coaches alike.