"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.
"We make the complaint, yet we're investigated."
And exonerated. The investigation's measured findings stand in marked contrast to the rhetoric of VanderMolen's disciples, which was becoming more and more strident as the weeks went on. "So, let me get this straight," wrote Debra Lewis, whose husband had founded the "New Thomas Paine Committee" that publishes the Right Wing Chronicle. "Our school board and administration feel that it's more important for their employees to work in an environment free from hostility than, say, our students?"
The AAA team found that Sixkiller and Schell had been subjected to a "hostile and intimidating work environment" for years, and all thanks to VanderMolen. The situation had become so tense that by the mid-Eighties, Schell requested a transfer to another school; when no openings became available, she stayed on. But tensions increased when the ninth grade was folded into LHS and the department increased to six teachers, including Sixkiller; scheduling the facilities became increasingly difficult--as did VanderMolen. In October 1991 Schell submitted her resignation as chair of the physical education department. "My reasons for resigning boil down to one individual on our staff, Dave VanderMolen," she wrote Principal Aschenbrenner. "While I have thoroughly enjoyed working with members of our department over the years, I can truly say that Mr. VanderMolen has not been easy to work with as a person or as a professional...Mr. VanderMolen does not follow course guidelines as written in the student course description book and has commented numerous times that he will not `change.' He displays a `my way or no way' attitude."
Aschenbrenner and several other members of the department convinced Schell to stay on. But the problems continued. Although LHS adopted a weight-training program at VanderMolen's suggestion, the coach himself refused to adhere to the guidelines, making scheduling difficult. For example, the AAA team noted, in 1992 "Sixkiller agreed to take only half the gym for her class, although it meant that half of her class sat idle...She ceded the other half to VanderMolen's class, who would engage in a recreational sport on the off days from weight training." And so it went its petty way until May 1994, when Sixkiller, VanderMolen and Schell "started on a collision course," the team noted. The fight began when VanderMolen took the softball gloves, even though Sixkiller's class was scheduled to use the equipment. Schell reported the incident to Aschenbrenner, who convened department lunch meetings to smooth things over. They remained rough.
It didn't help that Schell overheard VanderMolen in a local cafe, bragging at a prayer breakfast with two of his Amway salesmen that he'd "pulled the wool over the department's eyes." And then there was the matter of the mat that Schell and Sixkiller had affixed to the back of the basketball backboard to protect students using the new climbing wall. Although the gymnastics coach had marked the mat for "discard," VanderMolen claimed that the two women had taken one of his wrestling mats. He was still stewing over it months later, complaining about the "dumb women" to anyone who would listen. To others, he was complaining about a lot more. According to the AAA investigators, before last fall's football tournament game in Durango, VanderMolen told a former football parent that "things are going great except that I am having trouble working with the lesbians in the P.E. department." He asked one Ironworks student, "Who taught you to do those squats? Those men-haters?" He asked another if she felt uncomfortable undressing before Sixkiller.
In their investigation, the AAA team looked into the locker room, where Schell's office window was entirely blocked by a poster. "The Fact-Finders interviewed many young women [including students whose names were suggested by VanderMolen] about Schell and Sixkiller's conduct in the locker room and elsewhere," the team reported "and, uniformly, were told that they never said or did anything that these young women considered inappropriate."
On the other hand, the team considered VanderMolen's behavior out of line on several occasions and recommended that he not be allowed to return to LHS. The rest of the physical education department concurred. (Head football coach Gordon Cramer, who had worked with VanderMolen for more than twenty years, told a reporter, "If whoever in their wisdom decides he's going to be back here, then I'm going to be somewhere else.") The rest of the faculty also concurred, as did many of the students. So did Bishopp and new St. Vrain Superintendent Roger Driver, who happens to have replaced another man accused of sexual harassment. VanderMolen had to go.
It was only VanderMolen and his ardent supporters who did not agree. The deposed coach elevated his cause to a holy crusade, arguing that he was being punished for his religious beliefs. "That's insulting on a personal level," says Schell. "I was born and raised in the Catholic faith, and I consider myself a Christian." Even so, VanderMolen was so convincing that he attracted an unexpected, uninvited ally: Colorado for Family Values rescheduled its "Time to Stand" seminar for the Boulder/Longmont area to March 31, advertising it with the headline, "Longmont, will you take a few hours to stand against the forced affirmation of homosexuality?" And as much as CFV founder Kevin Tebedo argued that the seminar was not pegged to current events in Longmont, the next line, "What does Longmont do when open homosexuals are allowed to advocate their lifestyle to our children in our schools?" clearly belied that.
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So clearly, in fact, that VanderMolen's attorney sent out a disclaimer, noting that his client was not participating in the seminar. Still, the release noted: "Coach VanderMolen contends that he has been wrongfully discriminated against by the St. Vrain School District on the basis of exercising his Constitutionally protected religious freedom to communicate his belief in traditional Christian teachings on such topics as homosexuality."
That no one has ever suggested the women advocate homosexuality in the schools apparently doesn't matter. That Colorado law protects what public employees--married or not, gay or not--do in their off-hours (so long as it is legal) apparently doesn't matter, either.
What matters is that Coach VanderMolen did not win the game and now sees himself as a martyr to the cause.
But that, too, is open to interpretation. "By the way," another resident wrote the local paper, "Jesus was a teacher, also, and he was never married. Coach, do you think there was something wrong with him?