By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
The parents of some Cheyenne Central High School football players have been joined by two legislators in asking Laramie School District No. 1 to look into allegations of bullying and excessive verbal abuse by a coach toward student athletes at Central.
At least two parents also allege that after they told Central High administrators about their concerns surrounding Michael Apodaca, their children were targeted for retribution — prompting them to ask the school district itself to look into the allegations.
The lack of response by Cheyenne Central also moved Sen. Affie Ellis and Rep. Jared Olsen, both R-Cheyenne, to voice their concerns in a Nov. 30 letter to district Superintendent Margaret Crespo.
In their joint letter, the legislators said they had received “multiple reports” from parents of student athletes regarding Apodaca’s conduct.
“Parents have expressed a lack of trust in the administrative process for addressing bullying complaints, and thus, have asked for our help to find protection for their children from an improper culture of harassment occurring on school grounds by Laramie County School District #1 (district) staff,” they said in the letter.
These complaints specifically, they continued, were related to “numerous reports that student athletes were subjected to abusive and personally degrading verbal attacks that went far beyond anything that could be construed as providing constructive athletic coaching.”
The legislators added although the abuse was seemingly targeted at select students, the whole team by extension suffered under a “persistent, abusive environment of harassment which affected every student athlete who witnessed such abuse.”
The letter continued to say Central High School Principal Fred George and Athletic Director Chad Whitworth took no action to resolve the issue, to the best of the legislators’ knowledge. Instead, athletes allege they were retaliated against for their parents’ complaints, including having their playing time reduced or being benched entirely.
Apodaca’s actions, the legislators said, were in violation of Wyoming’s Safe School Climate Act that prohibits harassment, intimidation or bullying.
Ellis told Cowboy State Daily that she had been contacted by at least three different parents who voiced concern that the process for looking into complaints about the coach was not being followed.
She added the retaliatory action taken against select students prompted her to intervene.
“We try to be respectful of local decisions and local school boards,” Ellis said, “but as a legislator, I thought it was appropriate to ask the district to weigh in given the parents’ need to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation against their student athletes.”
Olsen, in a post on his Facebook page, said if the issue is not “properly addressed,” lawmakers may be prompted to take action to amend the Safe School Climate Act.
“The Wyoming Legislature is proud of its longstanding history against student harassment, intimidation, and bullying,” he wrote. “If there are gaps in our laws which fail to adequately protect our students, we need to make it a priority to address those gaps as soon as possible.”
Central High School Principal Fred George told Cowboy State Daily that the administration does not comment on any personnel issues.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear that his son will be retaliated against, one father said his son was subject to “pretty egregious bullying” that went beyond what might be construed as productive feedback.
“(The coach) would embarrass or humiliate the kids for things that were unrelated to football and would do it in the locker room or on or off the field,” he said.
This included calling a player “dumb” or attacking an overconfident player by exposing his vulnerabilities in targeted attacks aimed at demeaning and embarrassing him in front of the other students.
Another father, who also asked to remain anonymous for the sake of his son’s position on the team, said he isn’t sure how many players were targeted though he personally knew of more than half a dozen.
Both men said the verbal comments from the coach went far beyond what could reasonably be construed as constructive.
“He (Apodaca) exerted power and beat these kids down to the point that made them not sure how to feel about themselves as young men,” one father said.
It’s had a lasting impact that his son will feel for the rest of his life, he said, and his son is still visibly angry and rocked by the demeaning nature of the experience.
“It’s not just a lost or losing season,” he said. “My son missed out on an opportunity to have a positive mentor in a football coach, and he will always remember it for the wrong reasons.”
Several kids quit the team over the course of the season, he added, while others – including parents – were afraid to speak up.
Those parents and student athletes voiced their concerns about Apodaca and his coaching style in the end-of-season surveys that are regularly filled out and shared with the district.
Both of the fathers interviewed for this article said they had discussed the survey with their sons and other parents and players and all had agreed to be honest about their experiences.
At least one parent hired legal counsel to file a public records request with the school district on Dec. 8 asking for any documents containing one of five key phrases, including “Apodaca bullying, Cheyenne Central football bullying, Apodaca inappropriate, Apodaca intimidation and Apodaca parent complaint.” The request also asked for the results of the anonymous surveys.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one parent responsible for hiring legal counsel to initiate the request said it was done as a precaution to ensure that all information the public is entitled to review is made available.
“This school district has struggled with transparency in the past, particularly with personnel matters,” that parent said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily. “Due to the severity of bullying we’ve experienced from the football coach, we used every tool possible to ensure public oversight of our taxpayer funded program.”
An initial response sent Jan. 5 from the district’s counsel, O’Kelley H. Pearson, rejected the request for the survey results, saying the survey revealed concerns with the Cheyenne Central football coaching staff that led to an employee evaluation.
It added that concerns regarding staff conduct were raised before the survey was conducted, resulting in an investigation into alleged violations of personnel policies.
As a result, Pearson wrote, the survey results can be withheld under Wyoming’s Public Records Act because they deal with a personnel issue.
On the issue of documents sought using the key phrases, the district said its search of the terms identified revealed no documents containing any of the phrases.
However, L. Cooper Overstreet, legal counsel representing the public records request for the undisclosed client, said Monday that he’s already been in touch with the district’s counsel and believes they will soon reach an agreement regarding the request.
“Initially, there was some push back,” Overstreet said, “but we’re hopeful that we’ve made some progress since their response on Jan. 5.”
To this end, Overstreet cited the June 2019 Albany County District Court ruling in favor of several Wyoming media outlets who had requested public records related to the firing of former University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols.
Judge Tori Kricken granted the media’s request for documents related to Nichols’ dismissal.
In her ruling, Kricken cited exceptions to the public records request for public employees, who by virtue of their position are subject to increased scrutiny and notoriety, particularly for those who voluntarily accept positions of public prominence in which that person has willfully relinquished their right to certain privacies.
Although the response to the public records request alluded to an investigation currently underway by the Laramie School District No. 1, it did not not explicitly identify Apodaca as the subject.
The district, likewise, refused to comment.
“This is a confidential personnel matter, and the District does not comment on confidential personnel issues,” Vicki Thompson, assistant superintendent of human resources, said in a statement to Cowboy State Daily, through Creighton Grove, marketing specialist for the district.
Several of the parents interviewed, however, said the players were called to speak to human resource personnel who came to the high school to inquire about their responses to their surveys.
Apodaca, who was hired in 2018 after a 15-year career coaching in Colorado, is a Cheyenne Central alumnus. He did not return Cowboy State Daily’s email request for comment prior to publication.
The Cheyenne Central Indians ended their 2021 season with a 2-8 record.