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Abuse claims divide small town

Email|Print| Text size + By Alan Scher Zagier
Associated Press Writer / January 18, 2008

WARRENSBURG, Mo.—Like many high school athletes, the Warrensburg High Lady Tigers were admired throughout their small town. Then they accused their basketball coach of sexual misconduct.

Now the six female athletes who sued the school district and coach Russell Hough -- after an internal investigation cleared him -- are pariahs.

The bad feeling has gone well beyond a spirited defense of Hough, who also serves as the softball coach and insists he's innocent.

The teens have been called liars, bullies and even white trash (three of the players who have sued the white coach also are white, three are black). They've been insulted to their faces and on Facebook and MySpace pages. Their parents' jobs have been threatened. And the involvement of their attorney, who also happens to be the wife of the University of Central Missouri's president, has sparked a backlash that includes efforts to oust the college leader.

"They tell us we're tearing apart the community. They've told us to leave town, (that) we don't love this place," said a parent of one of the plaintiffs. He's a police officer and a lifelong resident of this town, population 17,000, a little more than an hour's drive from Kansas City.

The situation dates back to 2004, when a softball player accused Hough of improper physical contact. More complaints were lodged with school officials in 2006, and with the Warrensburg school board last summer.

The school system placed Hough on administrative leave with pay in September, but reinstated him two months later after concluding the accusations lacked merit. The six players now suing -- all of whom are basketball players -- say that during the internal investigation they were never interviewed by school officials. They filed their lawsuit the day after Hough's return.

Supporters cite the school system's internal inquiry, and a more narrow investigation by the state Department of Social Services, as proof that Hough is innocent.

They say the players' real motivation is vengeance against a demanding coach, fueled by parents who were unhappy over their daughters' lack of playing time, though four of the players started last year and two were key subs off the bench.

"I think they're very unfair," said Donna Warden, whose daughter is not among the accusers and continues to play for the Lady Tigers. "It ended up being a collaboration because they want a different coach."

The lawsuit also names the Warrensburg R-VI district, Superintendent Deborah Orr and Scott Patrick, assistant superintendent for student services, as defendants. Hough, who also teaches physical education at a Warrensburg elementary school, did not respond to requests for comment.

Patrick, whose daughter is on the Warrensburg basketball team, defended the school system's decision not to interview the youths before Hough was reinstated, noting that some were questioned when they voiced their concerns initially.

"At that point it was contentious enough," he said. "We didn't feel it would be productive."

The teens are identified individually only as Jane Doe in the suit. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual assaults or those who make such accusations in court. Their parents also are not being identified, to avoid revealing the youths' identities.

In Warrensburg, a bedroom community for Whiteman Air Force Base, the dispute has split lifelong friendships, said Penny Callahan. Her daughter remained on the basketball team when Hough was reinstated, even as her best friend joined the other five accusers in quitting the team.

"It's torn us up," she said. "I went into this with an open mind. I didn't want my daughter to be hurt, either."

The police officer whose daughter is part of the suit said that an opposing parent tried to get him fired. Another plaintiff's parent, who runs a store in town, said some customers have stopped shopping at his place.

"I've lived here all my life," he said. "I can't believe how many people turned on my family."

The youths' attorney, Ronnie Podolefsky, has been a particular target in a town long-accustomed to cordial relations with the Central Missouri campus.

"She's the first lady of education," said Greg Hassler, a local radio station owner and sportscaster whose on-air broadsides against Podolefsky have fueled the criticism. "She's supposed to be a community leader."

By the estimation of Hough's supporters, the college president's wife is out of line. They want her to stop representing the players, and if that means firing her husband -- Aaron Podolefsky -- then so be it.

A letter-writing campaign asks the university's eight-member Board of Governors to "rectify this unjust situation immediately," noting that Hough's allies "are beginning to have no choice but to turn our backs" on the university.

Some Warrensburg High parents are going one step further, circulating a petition asking the board of governors to fire Aaron Podolefsky, an anthropologist by training who became the school's president in July 2005 after 15 years at Northern Iowa, the last eight as provost.

"It's nothing new when the disgruntled resort to the old stereotype of an uppity wife who doesn't know her place," Ronnie Podolefsky said. "My career is independent and separate from the university."

The rancor in Warrensburg is not uncommon when trusted teachers are accused of sexual abuse, said Robert Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University who has testified in over 50 court cases involving accusations of sexual misconduct.

"It's much easier to deny than to investigate," he said. "Many times community members have invested themselves very deeply in the individual."

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