SSHS Girls Soccer Players Tell Board of Ed About Their Experiences
SARATOGA SPRINGS – An investigation in process regarding an alleged pattern of abusive behavior by Saratoga Springs High School (SSHS) Girl’s Varsity Soccer Coach Adrienne Dannehy was given further, dramatic illumination at the Saratoga Springs Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, May 10. At that meeting, several SSHS students rose before the Board to read statements detailing their experiences on the team, in which they said they were forced to endure repeated instances of humiliation, intimidation and abuse at the hands of their coach.
Three students with Varsity Soccer experience read statements regarding their own experiences. Three other students read statements from Varsity players who wished to be anonymous.
Hannah Pendergast, a senior Varsity member, spoke to the Board and said forcefully that “…sports should not be about fear, power and control,” but this was the atmosphere that she and the other students/athletes who stood and spoke in support - Gabrielle Duchaussee, Rachael Blunt, Audrey Fox, Julie Granger and Lexi Bakkalapulo – had to continuously face. Hannah and the others talked about instances of three-hour team meetings where members of the squad were encouraged to browbeat others about their weaknesses, long practices in 90+ degree weather in which their coach walked by/ignored athletes who were vomiting, and many other incidents. “Our basic right of dignity has been consistently violated,” Hannah said, noting that she still feels the atmosphere of intimidation, though her high school playing days have concluded. “I still get sick every time I pass the coach or the locker room. School athletics should not be about this.”
Gabrielle Duchaussee, also a senior Varsity member, spoke about the regularity of the intimidating situations and constant negativity the surrounded the team. She made a point to note that “…we are not asking that the coach be fired, but the situation must be monitored and changed.”
Three other students - Rachael Blunt, Audrey Fox and Julie Granger, said that they had decided against playing for the Varsity Girl’s Soccer team because of the atmosphere. But each of them read statements to the Board from Varsity team members who wished to remain anonymous.
But Lexi Bakkalapulo, a sophomore Varsity Soccer Goalie, went on the record. “It has taken a lot for me to step forward, because I have two more years and I feel invisible to coaches I once admired and looked forward to learning from,” she said. “For a long time we suffered in silence in hopes of pleasing our coach, but we realize we never will.” She said that she never cries, but this situation had brought her to tears often. “I don’t want to sound negative or not hopeful for the future, but it’s so hard to be positive when our coach’s style is to constantly punish and criticize. My hope (in speaking out) is that we can have a healthy environment to play the sport we love,” she said.
Later, Lexi told Saratoga TODAY that she is planning to play soccer on the Varsity team next season, but is unsure of what atmosphere she will be facing. Nonetheless, “I stand up for myself and my teammates because it’s the right thing to do.”
Following the students’ statements, three fathers - Rick Matteson, Rob Camoin and Joe Sirianni, all with daughters who had played on the Varsity team under Coach Dannehy, in turn spoke in support of the coach and their child’s experiences. Sirianni, who was also the Soccer Booster Club President, noted that he could “…fill the (auditorium) with people who have had positive experiences” with Coach Dannehy.
Coach Rich Johns spoke about the dangers of minimizing or marginalizing the player’s statements. “What you are seeing in front of you is real,” he said, and praised the girl’s courage. “When faced with vertical aggression, it’s important to come up with a plan of action and put it into place.” Coach Johns, noting that he had recently visited South Glens Falls High School, where a seventh grade student had recently committed suicide, said further, “I’m proud the girls came forward. It’s up to us as adults to come up with a way to get them out of a dark place. Let us look at this as an opportunity, an opening to a new beginning.”
“Empathy is very important here,” Coach Johns continued, “… the culture that students who speak up are placed in jeopardy has been with us for quite awhile.” He further went on to praise the efforts of SSHS Athletic Director Peter Sheehan, of whom he said, “…inherited this culture and is making great efforts to eliminate it.”
Rob Blunt, who coaches a local club soccer team, in addition to having a daughter on the Varsity Soccer team, offered this perspective: “…I have had the opportunity to coach many of the women who spoke tonight, as well as several of the daughters of the gentlemen who spoke in favor of the program. And I do not doubt that their daughters, like mine, were not treated like the players who spoke tonight. But does that make it right?”
“I suggest,” Blunt concluded, “that every player on the team should have the opportunity to play the game they love and represent their school without feeling ridiculed.”
For his part, Athletic Director Peter Sheehan acknowledged that he was constrained by the necessary confidential nature of an investigation in process, involving his office and school administration. But he stated that “We have been aware of this situation, which has been under confidential investigation, and are continuing to look into this matter,” Sheehan said. “We do intend to make the necessary adjustments as needed.”
The issue of Coach Dannehy’s behavior came under increased scrutiny in December of 2015. Several student-athletes, after attending a DASA (Dignity for All Students Act) presentation in a physical education class, reached out to the SSHS DASA Coordinator. Since that time, letters were sent to the Athletic Director and School Superintendents by parents, with follow up contacts with the Superintendents throughout 2016, expressing their concerns. These parents said they had been told that the matter was being handled – but behind closed doors. A May 5 email to the Board of Education from Hannah Pendergast’s mother, Ann Marie, requested the Board get involved in this situation, and “act and respond prior to any vote to approve coaching appointments for Fall 2016,” and led to the students’ appearance before the Board on May 10.
After the Board meeting, Lexi Bakkalapulo’s mother, Tina Smith, expressed her frustration and sadness with the chain of events to date: “I never thought I would find myself asking the educational system to protect the safety and well-being of my daughter and her teammates from one of their employees.”
This is a story in process. Even if you believe that responsible people have been put in responsible positions, and ultimately will do responsible things, it is a situation worth watching going forward.