The videos that emerged in August of East High School cheerleaders being forced into splits by a recently hired coach, Ozell Williams, have been very disturbing to the community, particularly among parents with middle and high school-aged athletes. It was revealed that Williams had previously worked for the Boulder Valley School District but had been terminated for “concern about his techniques,” according to the Denver Post. What protections do Denver Public Schools (DPS) and individual schools take to ensure that the coaches they hire are qualified and student-athletes are safe?
According to Northfield High School athletic director Micah Porter, “It takes an attentive effort to make sure that everyone that’s working around your kids is qualified to do so.”
Becoming a coach at DPS requires jumping through a lot of hoops. “There are multiple safeguards,” said Porter. “Almost to the point that I would say it makes it difficult for coaches to be hired, but that difficulty is intended for the safety of the students.”
DPS athletics confirms that candidates have been cleared through HR, which includes background checks and fingerprints. Candidates can “bounce back” for various reasons—traffic convictions, D.U.I., and checking off the box disclosing previous termination.
Coaches who are not teachers must also be registered through the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA), a statewide organization that grants both one-year and permanent coaching approval. Candidates who are hired take a “Fundamentals of Coaching” course that covers “everything from communication, to safety, to culture, to language, to dress. It’s basically how to be a professional in the coaching environment,” said Porter.
Bethany Brookens, an associate commissioner at CHSAA, said they don’t keep records of hirings and firings. There’s no database kept by CHSAA of background information, no place that a district that fires a coach for cause would or could report it—which, Brookens said, is true with other professions, even teachers. If a coach is released, said Porter, he lets DPS Athletics know, but he doesn’t share that information with CHSAA.
The Case of the East High Cheer Coach
According to DPS communications director Will Jones, “On his application form for Denver Public Schools, Ozell Williams did not disclose that he had any previous affiliation with Boulder Valley School District.” Jones added, “If a candidate omits a prior firing from their application, and if neither the references we speak with nor the criminal background check disclose the prior firing, then the district might not learn about that prior employment.”
“[The situation at East] is just incredibly unfortunate,” said Porter. “It’s more than unfortunate, because the safety and health of that student is the most important thing. It’s certainly not indicative of the culture that DPS promotes.”
Safety After Hiring
Once a coach is hired, Porter has a supervision schedule and emergency protocols for every sport, but the coaches are generally entrusted with taking care of their own athletes.
Porter hasn’t personally had experience with any coaches who have pushed their athletes too far, as appeared to be the case in the East High cheer incident. “I’ve had athletes pass out from exerting themselves too hard,” said Porter, but there are trainers and emergency protocols in place to handle it. Northfield coaches keep an eye on their athletes, offering breaks and water frequently, he added.
“We don’t want students to be unsafe or uncomfortable or in pain that can be prevented … of course there are risks, but all of those risks are mitigated by safety,” says Porter. “Avoidable risks are not part of our experience here at Northfield.”
If parents are concerned about their child’s safety, they should reach out to their school’s athletic director, although parents more often raise concerns about locker assignments or playing time, only rarely contacting him about safety, noted Porter.
“While we compete against each other, we’re still Denver Public Schools and we want to make sure that students at Manual, at Far Northeast, at TJ, all of them have fair and safe opportunities to learn and compete,” said Porter. “As a member of DPS, we care about all of our kids at every school.”
The Outcome at East
Following an independent investigation of the incident at East, the principal, Andy Mendelsberg, retired and assistant principal and athletic director Lisa Porter resigned. East’s former principal, John Youngquist, will return to East as principal, leaving a position as chief academic officer at Aurora Public Schools.