By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"I know how Jesus felt," said David VanderMolen. "This was a witch hunt."
But no witch ever cast a spell as successfully as VanderMolen, the longtime Longmont High School wrestling coach and physical education teacher as well as Amway salesman and PromiseKeeper. Early last month, while VanderMolen compared himself to Jesus, hundreds of his supporters packed a meeting of the St. Vrain Board of Education, singing the coach's praises to the school board and supporting his stand against teachers with "alternative lifestyles" who could corrupt their impressionable children. Some of those students had picketed LHS the day of the March 8 meeting, demanding that their favorite coach--who thoughtfully delivered pizzas to the picketers--be reinstated at the school.
Instead, at the end of six hours, the St. Vrain board voted 6-1 to transfer VanderMolen to an alternative middle school, where his talent for creating intense attachments with kids might be put to better use. The only boardmember voting against the transfer was Milt Etter, who six years earlier had been jailed and charged with misdemeanor child abuse for allegedly beating his wife's eight-year-old son when he failed to unload groceries quickly enough.
VanderMolen himself knows all about food fights. In December 1993, 21 years after he first joined the staff of LHS, he threw his lunch--complete with tray--at the school's kitchen supervisor when she told him he'd have to pay for his extra helping of salsa. "No goddamn woman is going to tell me what to do," he announced to the cafeteria.
But women were telling him what to do, and it was apparently sticking in the coach's craw. Since 1982, the head of the LHS physical education department had been a woman, Diane Schell, and VanderMolen had never appreciated her telling him when to teach a class, much less where and how. Even if that was her job--albeit an uncompensated one.
In fact, VanderMolen hadn't appreciated Schell from the first moment she took the position as physical education teacher and head girls' volleyball coach at LHS back in 1979, although she'd been born and raised in Longmont and her brother had once played football for VanderMolen. Early that first season, Schell set up softball equipment for her class. But when she went to use it, it was gone--removed by VanderMolen or his aide. There were other niggling irritations, but nothing Schell felt she could complain about at the time. "In those early years," she says, "we didn't know what sexual harassment was."
They do now.
On January 30, Schell and fellow physical education teacher Frances Sixkiller, the girls' volleyball coach who has brought two state championships home to Longmont, filed sexual-harassment complaints against VanderMolen with the school district. Schell's 29-page complaint outlined sixteen specific incidents stretching from October 1991 through January 1995; Sixkiller, who had taught in Lyons for seventeen years before joining the LHS staff in 1991, limited her list to the preceding seven months.
The day before Sixkiller and Schell filed their complaints, VanderMolen had been placed on paid administrative leave, reportedly for failing to heed a formal warning issued January 19 by LHS principal Duke Aschenbrenner and St. Vrain assistant superintendent Thelma Bishopp that he cease his inappropriate conduct toward Sixkiller and Schell.
He didn't. Push had really come to shove on January 25, when a few female students who were supposed to be in VanderMolen's "Ironworks" class were caught circulating a petition around school stating the following: "We as students at Longmont High School feel that our school environment would be more comfortable if we were not subjected to dress in front of people who openly profess to an alternative sexual lifestyle. We wish to make this petition to make LHS a more comfortable school environment."
That environment rapidly became much less comfortable. Although the petition did not name names, LHS has only three physical education teachers who are women--none of whom openly profess to much of any kind of lifestyle, much less an "alternative" one. Still, the stereotypes about single female gym teachers die hard, and it wasn't difficult for people to determine the petition's targets--or that VanderMolen's fingerprints were all over the place. After all, the coach had long complained about "lesbians" at the school, and the day after administrators confiscated the petition, he told one class, "I dearly thank you for sticking up for what you think is right." Listening was one of the students who'd circulated the petition; not only was she VanderMolen's assistant, but earlier that fall she'd complained to the coach that Sixkiller had treated her unfairly on the volleyball team and had even assigned players "sexually questionable" practice drills.
Such details are the subject of a February 23 report submitted to the school district by a team from the American Arbitration Association, which had been called in by Bishopp. The team interviewed forty people, including Schell (four hours), Sixkiller (two hours), VanderMolen (five hours), Aschenbrenner, Bishopp, the three other members of the LHS physical education department, assorted teachers, administrators, and students and their parents. "We've done nothing wrong," says Schell. "I've done nothing wrong in sixteen years. There's never been a question about my job or my morals. We're the victims here.