The line of ethical conduct in a relationship between a coach and a high school student can often be blurred. It's also one of the areas in which school children can be both positively influenced or put at severe, dangerous risk. Even more than with traditional teachers, coaches often wield an extraordinary amount of authority over their athletes and, when they cross over into the classroom, their students, because of their personalities.
The second part of that equation may have rarely been more obvious than in the case of a Lake Washington (Wash.) High boys basketball coach Barry Johnson, who now stands accused of sexual harassment with students in his class, including an incident in which he allegedly invoked the Jerry Sandusky scandal to make a crude sexual joke. What may have begun as an honest attempt to comfort a troubled student gradually built into what is alleged to be troublingly inappropriate relationships which included a handful of disgusting comments by the coach, actions which eventually led to his resignation amidst a Lake Washington school district investigation into his conduct.
Johnson officially pleaded not guilty to the charges of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes on Tuesday.
According to an internal investigation into Johnson's conduct, which was obtained by the Seattle Times, Johnson was first brought up for hugging a female student after a fellow Lake Washington student had committed suicide. While that effort might have seemed endearing or innocuous at the very least, the coach later began asking the same coach about her sex life during classwork. The coach followed that up with a Facebook friend request for the student and finally and the interactions concluded with more disturbing comments during a lunch period which eventually pushed the student to report the coach to administrators in December.
If that series of interactions wasn't enough, there's this: Johnson reportedly asked a male student in his class if he was going to "Sandusky" another male Lake Washington classmate when discussing the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
If true, that has to be among the most deplorable comments from a high school coach on record. And that says nothing of the deeper trauma that Johnson allegedly caused the female student who accused him of harassment.
For his part, Johnson has denied that he was responsible for any of the comments attributed to him, though he has resigned from his post and has not refuted his attempt to connect with the unnamed female student on Facebook. In his defense, the former coach claimed in a statement he was actually attempting to help the student in question, whom he claims was using illegal drugs.
"The allegations that lead (sic) to me being placed on administrative leave were made within twenty four hours of me asking a young person about their use of drugs," Johnson wrote in his letter of resignation. "That same young person admitted to me that they were using Animal Tranquilizers amongst (sic) other drugs. I was hoping to get that young person help. I realize that the way in which this was done could have been different. Outside of electronic communication, the allegations that were made about me are outrageous, unfounded and unsubstantiated."
Meanwhile, the former coach's experience with the female student in particular seems to be haunting much of her personal life, as she explained in an email sent to the school district that was obtained as part of the Lake Washington School District's internal investigation into Johnson which was obtained by the Seattle Times.
"I also want to say that if this had been a situation in which I felt I could have just said 'stop,' then I would have just said 'stop.' But, after three months, countless hints that it was not OK, several outbursts exclaiming that it was not OK, and no change in behavior, I kind of came to the conclusion that 'stop' just wasn't going to cut it." …
"Every moment, every instant, of every day that this happened is forever seared into my mind," she wrote. "I can't erase it. I can't pretend it didn't happen. I can't pretend that, after awhile, I wasn't beginning to become ... frightened of him. Frightened that maybe it would become more than comments, talk and invading questions. And he knew it. And he didn't stop. Or couldn't stop. I don't know.
"And what's worse is feeling like everyone's kind of ... pointing the finger at me. Blaming me. And, I promise I don't need to be blamed, because I feel bad enough. I couldn't explain why I feel so guilty and terrible and afraid, but I do."