The Hummel Report

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Silent No More

The longtime coach of the varsity baseball team in South Kingstown is under increasing fire from some parents and former players, who say his abusive behavior - and questions about spending from a student activity fund - make him no longer fit to lead the team. Like other parents, they didn’t want to jeopardize their sons’ playing time by speaking out. But this week they tell Jim Hummel: the time for silence is over.

SCRIPT:

 

For years South Kingstown High School has had a reputation for successful baseball teams. Over the past four years, the varsity squad went to three consecutive championship series, winning a state title in 2018.

But success, under Head Coach Jim Sauro, has come with a cost.

Miech: “It wasn’t time to be quiet anymore. And I reached out to some other parents who I knew had the same feeling and we decide collectively as a group file complaints with the school administration about the coach.”

Joe Miech, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Rhode Island State Police, said he and other parents complained repeatedly about Sauro’s abusive behavior toward players, included Miech’s son, Owen. And they raised questions about expenditures from a student activity account, funded largely by sales of coupon books to local businesses by the players.

Crook: “If I were coaching, and I was accused of half of these things, I would more than likely be gone in a heartbeat.”

Matt Crook’s son, Lucas, left the team during his junior year, in part because of the toxic atmosphere surrounding the team.

“There are kids who hate him. Flat out, whether they’ll admit it or not. And there are kids who dislike baseball and South Kingstown baseball specifically because of him. I’ve talked to their parents. Many of them won’t come forward.”

In a series of interviews with the Hummel Report over the past month, parents outlined a pattern of behavior by Sauro that they say has been going on for years. And they told of their frustration in getting no traction with the administration when they brought it to the School Department’s attention.

The complaints include: Sauro calling Miech’s son Owen a retard multiple times in front of the team, an assistant coach throwing chewing tobacco at him, players being pulled out of class during the school day to perform maintenance on the baseball field a few blocks away from school grounds. And pressuring players to blitz neighborhoods to sell the discount coupon books.

Despite the detailed complaints and allegations - to the administration, then the School Committee, Sauro was back on the sidelines this spring.

Ken Loud’s son Harrison played all four years and graduated earlier this month.

Loud: “I think it’s a systematic failure of both the School Committee and the administration to see what was presented to them. Let’s just reverse things: if this was a student bullying another student, what action would be taken?”

Kevin McGee: “If he did some of the stuff in the classroom that he did on the field,  no way. Union rules or not, bargaining power aside, they would look to get rid of him as a teacher, so why is it accepted on the field? Because it’s that old school mentality, right?”

Kevin and Colleen McGee’s son Connor also left the team, but has gone on to play baseball in college. McGee, who has coached state championship teams in Rhode Island and North Carolina said he saw coaches who were hard, but fair. Not Sauro.

McGee: “You throw it off or you convince yourself that it’s just hard coaching. And winning breeds success, it buries a lot of thing. If he was a failing coach would they get rid of him? I don’t know.”

Miech: “I think it’s just mind games - that they’re trying to control the kids and exert their power and authority over the kids to make them do whatever they say, practice whenever they want. And not complaint about it. It’s bullying, we can’t stand for that as a community.”

Sauro was an infielder for Narragansett High School in the 1980s, before going on to have a successful career at The University of Rhode Island. He was hired as a health and physical education team in South Kingstown in 1994 and began coaching in the spring of 1995.

We wanted to get his response to the allegations about his behavior. So we caught up with him as he left for school for the day one day last week.

Hummel: “Mr. Sauro did you get my messages? Why won’t you talk to us?”

Likewise Principal Robert Mezzanotte and former Supt. Kristen Stringfellow did not respond to multiple emails over the past several weeks. Interim superintendent ,Robert Hicks, who took over when Stringfellow left abruptly in April, did respond.

Hicks, in an email, told us the School Department conducted an investigation, but is prohibited from talking about it publicly because it involves personnel matters. And the teachers union has also gotten involved in the case.

Crook: “I don’t understand how a coach - when it’s an extracurricular activity - yes, it’s the school; it’s South Kingtown, it’s not part of his job as a teacher, why is there union representation and protection?”

Miech: “We didn’t hear anything on Sept. 5th, 2018 I emailed the principal, Robert Mezzanotte. And I got a response back that the investigation had concluded and that they’d also received 19 letters of support for the coach, which I thought was strange. We’re trying to tell you that something has happened to our sons’ collectively - and you’re discounting that by saying you’ve gotten 19 letters for the coach.”

Hummel: “Almost like in defense of.”

Miech: “Correct.”

The School Committee Department in March voted to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement with Sauro at a meeting just as this year’s season got underway, but released no details.

Loud said his son reported that Sauro’s demeanor was not as coarse at the beginning of the year, but got worse as they season went on. He also said practices were shorter, players were no longer being called out of class to work on the field and the coupon books weren’t being sold this year.

School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Canter, in an email to The Hummel Report, said: “Quite honestly, I have no intention of participating in an interview, on or off camera, about confidential personnel matters that are thoroughly vetted. Particularly in this situation, the matter was vetted by *two* significantly different school committees, with information that parents are not privy to. O appreciate your commitment to investigative reporting, but it’s a hard pass for me.”

Then there’s the issue of the student activity fund. Miech put in a series of public records requests and found the account paid for a $50 fine for Sauro getting ejected from a game, a $200 fine for the pitching coach who violated interscholastic league rules by coaching an AAU season out of season; $600 for a coaches dinner for 40 people and $400 for sponsorship/raffle tickets for the URI baseball program.

Loud: “It’s like an Oliver Twist: send the minions out, shake down the neighborhood and bring back the cash.”

They have forwarded their findings to the Rhode Island State Police, who two years ago charged a coach who was doing similar fundraising in Lincoln with embezzlement from the account. In the case of South Kingstown, the expenditures from the fund had approval from the administration.

Hummel: “Do you think that Coach Sauro is fit to coach, given what you’ve heard from your son?

Miech: “My son, no. I know people have to put up with certain things, that the world isn’t’ a fair place. But what he did to my son is not acceptable at all, especially for a high school student, who is forming his brain, forming his personality, and to be talked to like that and subjected to the things he was subjected to is not acceptable.”

The concerted effort by parents to alert the administration might have not have materialized if Owen Miech had not had a run-in with Sauro after he left the team. Sauro had called Owen out for missing a practice because of his cousin’s wedding and then going to another school function.

Miech: “He finally was fed up. The coach was giving him a hard time again about attending another school function to miss a practice. He resigned from the team, telling the coach that he didn’t think he was a good coach. He didn’t think he was a good person and he didn’t want to play for him anymore and he walked out with his head held high. And I was very proud of him. Several weeks later the coach started harassing and intimidating Owen in school. ‘Miech why won’t you talk to me. Hey Miech, what’s going on?’ More a harrassing, intimidating kind of manner. Until my son, again got fed and told the coach to shut up. I think he’d had enough. So the coach, the teacher, wrote my son up.”

Then the story began to spill out as Owen’s parents got involved.

Miech: “Eventually, Owen took it upon himself to write an email to the principal, filing a formal complaint against the coach for a variety of issues and that’s where this all started. So it wasn’t about him not playing, it wasn’t about any vendetta that he had against the coach, it was the coach picking on him after he resigned that just led to him saying, you know what? I’ve had enough and I’ve got to stick up for myself. Owen came in an spoke with the principal and the superintendent, the other parents went in by themselves. After Principal Mezzanottee told me that he had concluded his investigation - I checked with all the other kids that Owen had mentioned who witnessed certain things: none of them had been contacted by the administration or by Principal Mezzanotte. If you’re going to conduct an investigation, you’re going to talk to witnesses. None, that I could find, were spoken with.”

The other parents had similar conversations with the Mezzanotte.

Loud: “He said that it was no big deal about it, he had given his explanation about how he, when he was a player in high school, how he didn’t get along with his coach, kind of just brushed it off like, what’s the big deal? And I asked him: ‘I said, you got kids? I said you have young children? If this happens to you, you’ll have the same concerns.’”

Hummel: “The parents who have had the interaction with this I’m sure would not be surprised by anything you’re saying: some look the other way, some put up with it, some kids have left the program. If the larger community of South Kingstown heard these details, what do you think the reaction would be?”

Miech: “I think they’d be appalled at what’s been going on. South Kingstown, that’s not what we’re all about, when you read, again the policies and procedures of the school, anti-bullying and being a community that’s supportive of everyone, that’s not what it’s all about.”

Colleen McGee: “I just feel we were heard, just to be heard. We came in, just to check of the box that I met with the McGees and it’s filed away. I felt validated at the time, but I felt like after we left that nothing was going to happen. That it was just two parents complaining that their kid didn’t have playing time.”

Colleen McGee said she went to her son’s teacher when he was struggling during the baseball season to keep up with his advanced placement class.

Colleen: “And I said: ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so worried about him, he’s exhausted physically, he exhausted mentally, he doesn’t seem himself. He’s a very outgoing kid, he’s a very social kid.’ And she said, ‘I see it too’ And she said:  what’s sad is I see this every year with some kids with Coach Sauro and she said unfortunately nothing gets done and it was frustrating for me, as a mom, and then hearing from a teacher is recognizing that’s nothing that’s going to happen about it.”

Loud said he also took issue with Sauro criticizing his players in comments to the local paper right after the team lost the state championship a few years ago. The coach told a reporter the team had no heart or mental toughness and that’s why they lost.

Loud: “The coach belittled the team in the newspaper. Actually saying that this team didn’t play with any heart, in the local newspaper. Shameful. Absolutely shameful. I saw my son come home completely shattered because he wanted it for the last two years, because these kids deserved it, worked hard. But when you’re lambasted in a local newspaper because you didn’t have heart? What man does that? What coach does that? What parent does that?”

Colleen: “And hw are, as a principal, okay with that article?”

Kevin: “Or an athletic director?”

Colleen: “Anybody, that’s what I don’t understand. It blows my mind.”

Kevin: “I can’t tell you in North Carolina, that same coach is in the athletic director’s office that next day, probably gone. If he’s a long-term successful coach over decades survives maybe he survives. But with (Sauro’s) background? Well, he wouldn’t even be coaching down there.”

Hummel: “Who’s protecting him?”

Crook: “I think the silence.”

Hummel: “Do you think he counts on that silence?”

Crook: “I think so. I mean we all want our kids to do something that they love. And that’s playing baseball.  You almost feel that you have to put up with it in some ways. I think there are many many people who feel the same way, know the same things, but haven’t really addressed it because they can get through high school and then it’s on the back burner, it fades.”

Miech: “That’s part of my hope, that by bringing this to light, is that behavior will change, whether it be Coach Sauro or anybody else, so that they can experience their high school days - whether it be in school or on the baseball field - have fun, enjoy it and grow up to be adults who look back and have a good memory.”

The McGees say they found it ironic that Supt. Stringfellow, in her comments at Connor’s graduation a year ago, spoke about a new anti-bullying initiative at the high school called Choose Love.

Colleen: “The superintendent talked about how we’re such a wonderful community about not bullying. And I sat there face-to-face with the principal crying as a mother about how our son had been treated in his school the last three years and I walked out of there feeling as if nothing was going to happen. And here we are a year later and nothing has happened.”

In South Kingstown, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.