Athletes needed rides home, and Greg Ford Jr. says he wanted to help.
But now the Lincoln High School wrestling coach, who led the Abes to success they hadn’t seen in 20 years, is trying to get his job back after being fired for failing to follow a Tacoma School District policy.
Ford received a letter from Lincoln Principal Pat Erwin on March 2 notifying him he had been fired. Ford said it’s because he gave wrestlers rides home after practices and occasionally took them to weekend tournaments.
“I’m basically being punished for having a heart,” Ford said. “For helping kids when they needed it.”
About 25 wrestling parents attended a meeting at a family’s home Sunday evening to express their support for Ford. An online petition demanding Ford’s coaching contract be renewed had garnered more than 800 supporters as of Thursday afternoon.
Coaches giving athletes a ride home is certainly not unprecedented. But Ford’s mistake was in not following district protocol by alerting a school administrator or getting parents to provide written consent, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. Ford thought verbal parental consent was enough.
School district policy prohibits staff from giving students rides alone in nonemergencies. The policy notes that employees who violate the rules are subject to discipline, “up to and including termination.”
“We think it’s important to set strict boundaries to protect the safety of our students,” Voelpel said. He calls the rules “nonnegotiable.”
Ford has not been accused of any sexual misconduct, Voelpel said.
The News Tribune has asked Tacoma Public Schools for personnel records that could shed more light on his case. That request is pending. Requests for interviews with key personnel, including district Director of Student Life Jennifer Kubista, district Athletic Director D’Andre Montgomery and Lincoln Assistant Principal Logic Amen, were directed to Voelpel.
Tacoma Public Schools helped pioneer training for school employees in avoiding boundary invasion and instituted the policy in June 2010. Every new district employee receives the training after being hired, and employees are scheduled to repeat it periodically.
Experts say it can prevent behaviors used by predators to “groom” a child victim for sexual abuse. In 2009, school security guard Donte Lipscomb was suspended without pay for three days after he gave a student a ride home without permission from the girl’s parents and without reporting it to the school.
Four years later, he admitted to having sex with three female students and was sent to prison. One of the victims later sued the district, arguing that Lipscomb should have been fired over the ride home, instead of reassigned to another post where he victimized students.
Such past sexual abuse cases are one reason Tacoma takes its boundary invasion policy seriously, district officials say.
Tacoma schools began investigating Ford for violating the policy after a Dec. 12 story in The News Tribune highlighted the wrestling program’s turnaround.
Lincoln entered the season with a 32-1 league record and four consecutive titles. This year, the Abes placed seventh as a team in the 3A state championships — their highest finish since 1997 after going nine consecutive years of not placing. J.J. Dixon became the school’s first individual state champion since K.C. Walsh in 2002.
Ford, a former 140-pound state champion at River Ridge High School and later the Lacey school’s coach, spoke about the Lincoln team’s unbreakable chemistry. Wrestlers would occasionally visit his house, watching wrestling documentaries, reviewing film from matches, playing video games and sometimes sleeping over the night before tournaments.
District policy and regulations warn against those kinds of staff-student interactions. Another adult should be present at the event, which should be school-related and parental consent must be given.
Ford said there was always at least one other adult at his house, and he always had parental consent. He said he never imagined these actions could cost him his job.
“I looked at it like it was harmless because the parent had called me and asked if I could do this,” Ford said. “I never figured something like this would happen to me, because the parent was always in the loop.”
Jeremias Sandoval lived near Ford, so he would occasionally hitch a ride home.
Sandoval, a junior wrestler, lives with his aunt, Stephanie Lambert, outside the Lincoln attendance area, about three miles away, and he walks to school most mornings. Sandoval’s aunt — who does not drive because of having had back surgery three years ago — asked Ford to give him a ride home after practices or tournaments.
With the consent of Sandoval’s guardian, he figured he was in the clear.
“And I remember coach was like, ‘I got you. I’ll make sure he gets home somehow,’ ” Lambert recalled. “I was like, ‘That would be amazing. Thank you so much.’ I can’t remember the conversation word for word — I never thought I would need to write it down or record it. But I was thrilled because I trust coach.”
Elizabeth Zumwalt, whose son is a freshman on the team, said she and Ford had both helped provide rides for wrestlers. And after Ford met with district officials Feb. 8 about their investigation, Zumwalt said she and other parents responded by developing a plan to provide rides for kids that Ford had typically provided.
Zumwalt said football coaches, whom she did not name, had given her son rides that she hadn’t previously consented to. But she didn’t see it as an issue.
“I didn’t realize it was something (Ford) could get in this much trouble for,” Zumwalt said.
Lambert said she viewed Ford as a positive male role model for Sandoval and encouraged him to get rides home with Ford as a way for them to spend time together — even for just a five-minute drive.
“I feel like this is all really my fault that this is even happening,” she said sobbing. “You look at something like this like it’s a handout — this guy is going to help my kid who has had so much bad stuff happen to him. … And coach has changed all of our lives. I don’t know how to fix this.”
Ed Lacross coached Lincoln wrestling before Ford took over four years ago. He, too, occasionally gave his wrestlers rides home, he said.
“The thing is, a lot of these kids don’t end up having transportation,” Lacross said. “I tried to get as many kids as possible to get rides from other parents that were there or there were other times kids just weren’t going to get a ride. I tried to use my discretion and be as careful as possible, but I’m not going to leave kids out in the dark and pouring down rain.”
He also remembered an incident about five years ago after he provided a wrestler a ride home. He said the athlete’s parents complained about it, which led to a reprimand from the school district.
“Basically, don’t ever do that again,” Lacross said he was told.
But he wasn’t fired.
“This feels like an excessive punishment,” Lacross said. “They should have gave (Ford) an opportunity — even though he should have known better — to correct the situation.”
Ford was among 10 coaches included in a Jan. 18 email from Amen reminding them about boundary invasion training they had attended in August 2016. Amen attached a slide listing examples of boundary invasions — including giving a student a ride in a staff member’s personal vehicle.
But Amen also wrote that “there is paperwork that can be completed to allow students to be transported by coaching staff.”
Ford followed up with an email 23 minutes later asking how he could get that paperwork “since I have had parents call me and ask to transport (their) kids. I want to be by the book.”
Amen responded two days later asking for time to locate it. But Ford said Amen never followed up.
Lambert said a school official contacted her Feb. 8 and was told that she could stop by the office to complete a form.
“They said, ‘Oh, yeah, we can fix this,’ ” Lambert said. “Like, ‘It’s no big deal.’ ”
Lambert said she then stopped by Lincoln and added Ford as an emergency contact and on a list of authorized transportation providers.
The contract between the Tacoma School District and the Tacoma Coaches and Extracurricular Leaders Association states that a process of progressive discipline will be used — including oral warning, written reprimand or suspension. Ford said that never happened.
Voelpel said Ford had been verbally notified and instructed not to do it again, but that Ford continued to provide rides.
“He could be fired even without reprimand,” Voelpel said. “We believe in progressive discipline, but at the same time there are certain things people can do that are egregious enough to be fired on a first offense.”
Ford said he stopped providing rides to students in December after he was told he was under investigation.
“In the (February) meeting I had with (human resources) and administrators, I said, ‘I understand that you guys also want to protect me if someone were to say anything against me and it could really make me look bad and the school look bad. I get that,” Ford said. “But what you’re asking me to do is turn my back on kids.”
Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677