The Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board held a special meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday to discuss and allow public comment regarding what the school district previously described as a “team-building exercise” that occurred during a preseason football conditioning session that resulted in the near drowning of three West Valley High School students on July 26.
When asked mid-meeting by school board Vice President Tim Doran for a show of hands of those who were in attendance specifically for the swimming incident, over 20 raised their hands. Of those attendees, five gave public comment, touching on topics including the specific nature of the team-building exercise, the lack of an apology from the school district, concern for the assistant coaches involved and the mandatory nature of what the school district has previously described as an optional preseason activity.
At the conclusion of public testimony, there was a motion to go into executive session with Superintendent Karen Gaborik, the borough attorney’s office, outside legal counsel by video conference, and the borough risk manager, to discuss matters within the attorney-client privilege.
“Tonight I just want to share some of the facts that we can share publicly at this time,” Gaborik said upon opening the meeting.
The accident occurred on day two of what was supposed to be an optional three-day activity, although Gaborik admitted there had been indications that the players were told by former head coach Roy Hessner, who resigned on July 27, that it was mandatory.
“Day one of the event included field work, day two was a scheduled conditioning event to take place 6-8 p.m. at the UAF Patty Center Pool. There were approximately 42 players at the pool on day two. In addition to the head coach, six assistant coaches were in attendance and a lifeguard was provided by the Patty Pool. … During the event on day two, students had difficulty performing the exercises,” Gaborik said.
In an earlier account from UAF Spokesperson Marmian Grimes, students were treading water in the deep end of the pool when three sank to the bottom. The three students were then pulled from the pool, unresponsive, and CPR was performed until the first responders arrived. The three students were transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, and, according to the school district by July 30 all three students had been released.
“The coaches that were involved in the planning and the supervision of the conditioning events … are not currently coaching the West Valley football team,” Gaborik said at the meeting.
Amy Angaiak, a parent of one of the incoming West Valley freshman who was participating in the activity was the first member of the public to speak. Angaiak said the camp had been called a “Crucible Camp,” which is the same name given to a three-day physical, psychological and emotional test required of Marine recruits, and was a requirement for the athletes to “earn their pads.”
Curtis Rogers also testified, reinforcing Angaiaks account of the practice being mandatory, and described a meeting earlier in the summer in the West Valley High School auditorium where players and parents were told “every player will have to go through this three-day camp, and at the end, they will have to test to get their pads.”
“We parents were only told that day two was to be at UAF Patty Pool and to bring a hooded sweatshirt,” Angaiak said. “Hessner ... forced those who didn’t know how to swim to jump into the deep end of the pool, fully clothed. … My son said the coach asked who couldn’t swim and five boys raised their hands. Hessner then instructed the other team members that they had to take care of them.”
Angaiak went on to raise questions including why weren’t permission slips required for such an activity and why district coaches aren’t required to have approved practices in the same way that district teachers are required to have approved lesson plans.
Natasha Cummings, a mother of a student-athlete, also testified, expressing her disappointment that the school district had not issued an apology.
“We as parents need an apology. I have three kids that went through West Valley, and to have this happen to my son who is almost graduating next year, this is like to me, I would say, a slap in the face from all the staff members at West Valley and the school district,” Cummings said.
Board President Wendy Dominique said the district is unable to issue an apology “because of liability constraints.”
Helen Conwell also spoke to the board expressing her concern over what would happen to some of the assistant coaches who were present for the exercise, but “reacted very well in helping the children.”
Dominique later addressed Gaborik regarding the issue of keeping assistant coaches on the staff.
“Can I just suggest that when you do speak with the coaches that — just a suggestion from me having had a son in football, having had a lot of family members that I know that were involved in this — it should be a question to the parents. … At least talk to them and find out where they stand on the coaches,” the school board president said.
Prior to going into executive session, acting risk manager for the borough Jen Martel gave an update on the investigation, which has been ongoing since the accident, saying they “have spoken to approximately 25 individuals and are continuing to gather facts.” She did not have an estimate as to when the investigation would be complete.
“I truly appreciate everybody’s patience with the information gathering process,” Gaborik said. “With the large number of people involved in this event, including the 42 players and the coaching staff, it takes time to conduct interviews.”
Norm Davis, a teacher at University Park Elementary who has previously helped coach football and wrestling at West Valley, has replaced Hessner as the acting head coach. A permanent head coach will be hired when Gaborik gives West Valley High School Principal Sarah Gillam permission to do so.
According to a post-meeting press release, once the investigation is complete, “Superintendent Gaborik will review the recommendations and make decisions about how the district will move forward with regard to pre-season activities for all sports. Also under consideration will be the safety of activities not normally within the realm of a particular activity.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.