Nothing changed for seven suspended West Valley High School football assistant coaches Thursday night at a Fairbanks North Star Borough school board meeting.
The coaches were suspended for two years after three West Valley student-athletes nearly drowned during a preseason conditioning activity July 26 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Center pool. Roy Hessner, who was in his first season as West Valley’s varsity football head coach, resigned July 27.
Despite passionate public comments from a few of the coaches, players and supporters Thursday, the status of the assistant coaches was still the same after the two hour-plus meeting in the first-floor auditorium of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District building.
Shaun Conwell Sr., one of the assistant coaches, was emotional when talking during the public-comment session about diving into the pool to bring up the three student-athletes who were at the bottom of the pool’s deep end.
“Even with all that’s gone down, I wouldn’t change it, ”Conwell Sr. said. “I saw three children at the bottom of the pool, I pulled three children from the bottom of the pool.”
“I would go through all that again,” he said, “if I know this was going to happen again to make sure that these boys are with us, and they are with us.”
Conwell Sr.’s son, Aaron, a sophomore football player for West Valley, dove in to help his father bring the players up.
“Once I jumped in there, I pushed my dad up a little to get him some air,” Aaron Conwell said. “If I didn’t do that, there’d be four dead bodies and I wouldn’t have a father.
“You guys understand this? “he asked the school board members. “I wouldn’t have a father.”
The school board, after a one hour, 20-minute executive session, upheld the two-year suspension for the coaches. The executive session included superintendent Karen Gaborik, the borough’s attorney’s office and risk manager and an outside counsel.
“We appreciate the heartfelt comments from students, parents and coaches,” school board president Wendy Dominique said to the audience in the auditorium. “We acknowledge the risks that some of the coaches took and the effort they made to save the lives during this current event.
“We have to consider all the facts, and the board members present unanimously support the decisions made by the superintendent. Our focus is on the students’ safety, and we’re committed to their safety and well-being.
“As we continue the review of this matter, we have directed the superintendent to conduct a thorough review of preseason activities.”
Several audience members walked out of the auditorium in frustration.
Kyle Allison, one of the West Valley assistant coaches and a former varsity head coach for the Wolfpack, sat quietly in his chair after hearing the school’s board decision to uphold the suspensions.
“I honestly can’t say that it seemed like they put a lot of thought into it after what we said,” Allison said.
“We didn’t hire coach Hessner. He was hired by the (West Valley) administrators, and they’re still able to keep their jobs and work with the kids, and we’re not.”
During the public comment, Allison read a statement that included information about Hessner conducting a similar activity with the West Valley softball team March 30 at the Patty Center pool. He presented to the school board a copy of the statement and one from an unidentified West Valley softball player regarding the softball team incident.
Dominique said after the meeting that decisions remain for the school board to make regarding Hessner.
Thursday’s meeting also occurred amid an investigation of the football team’s incident in June. It also came two weeks after a team manager and nine players from the West Valley football team hand-delivered a petition to the superintendent’s office to have the seven assistant coaches reinstated.
Helen Conwell, Shaun Conwell Sr.’s mother and the grandmother of West Valley players Shaun Jr. and Aaron Conwell, read from a statement during her three minute public comment Thursday night.
“The district has taken negative action towards these individuals who have dedicated their time and lives to children in our community to excel in a sports program that they love,” she said.
She included in her statement, “The action that the superintendent has taken is wrong.”
Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/newsminersports.