Marana Unified School District officials recommended April 11 that Marana High School's varsity girl's basketball coach be relieved of his coaching position following a three-month investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. The finding does not affect his teaching contract.
Marc Acker, who last year was named Girls Coach of the Year by the Tucson Citizen, is in his second year at MHS, 12000 Emigh Road. He declined to comment on the situation. He is the son of Joe Acker, who has spent 30 years as Marana's boy's basketball coach.
The lawyer hired by Marana Unified School District to investigate the claims, Shefali Milczarek-Desai, said her investigation found that Acker's behavior "did not constitute sexual harassment as that term is legally defined within the district's policy and within state and federal sexual harassment laws (but) there was a finding that his conduct did not meet the standards expected by the district and the recommendation has been to not renew his coaching contract."
The complaints center around Acker's alleged use of the terms "lesbian" and "bisexual" when referring to his players, comments about the girls' breasts and one case of a student being alone in a school van with an assistant coach and Acker, according to parents and district officials.
When asked if there had been allegations of sexual abuse of any nature, Assistant Superintendent Richard Lesko said, "Absolutely not - at no point did anyone say anything that could be construed as sexual abuse. They said, 'He is sexually harassing our daughters.'"
Milczarek-Desai is from the law firm of DeConcini, McDonald, Yetwin & Lacy, P.C., the firm that regularly represents the district in legal issues. She refused to comment at length on the investigation, citing lawyer-client privilege.
Acker had his annual coach's evaluation on April 7, according to Lesko, and was told of the investigation at that time.
According to district policy, a coach has five working days to appeal an evaluation, not counting the day on which the evaluation is given. Because this week is spring break, Acker has until April 21 to appeal.
Lesko said April 11 that Acker had not yet appealed. He also explained that coaches serve at the will of the school principal and if, after reviewing an appeal, the principal decides against rehiring, "that decision is final." Lesko would not elaborate exactly on how Acker's behavior did not "meet district standards for a coach," except to say "he could have handled some things better and used more appropriate terms when talking to his athletes."
Acker's contract as a math teacher at MHS remains intact "because the allegation has nothing to do with his teaching," Lesko said. Acker teaches geometry, which is normally taken in the sophomore year of high school. One of his players was in his class, but was removed when complaints first surfaced in December.
Acker knew of complaints that month, according to basketball parent Wade Lewis.
"My daughter and one other girl received letters of interest from the UA and (Acker) made the comment that the only reason they were getting recruited was because they were lesbians," Lewis said. "That's what kicked it all off. I immediately had a meeting with (assistant principal Joe Hajek) and the coaching staff, and one of the coaches said, 'We didn't see any harm in it,' and I said, 'How could you not see any harm? You don't show me no respect at all as a parent if you're going to think it is OK to joke around with 15-year-old girls sexually as far as being lesbian or bisexual. That's the dumbest thing in the world.'
"The coach and his staff apologized to me in that meeting, but not to my daughter," Lewis continued. "And nothing got done. So at the end of January, I called Lesko and said, 'Let's bring these girls in right now and talk about it, but he wanted to wait until after the season … so when the end of the season came, in the beginning of March, I called him up and said, 'Let's get this ball rolling, this is not something you're gonna sweep up under the deal and the next thing you know, he's not doing interviews with the girls, we got lawyers doing interviews."
Lesko, who also serves as the district's athletic director, confirmed that Milczarek-Desai was brought in to the case in mid-March, "but that was after I'd done my own investigation in January and February."
He said the district sought legal counsel "because there were students that needed to be talked to to confirm if the allegations had merit," and Lesko thought it needed to be someone who was independent and unbiased.
"As you can imagine, there are very strong personalities involved in this case," he said without elaborating.
Milczarek-Desai is an expert in women's issues, according to information posted on the DeConcini McDonald Web site.
Shannon Bailey, another basketball parent, said her daughter was never called sexual names by Acker, but that "he was absolutely verbally abusive" with her.
"If she made a mistake on the court, he would say, 'OK, look at her, this is who you don't want to be'," Bailey said. "She heard him call several of the girls lesbians, said they were bisexual and made comments about their (breasts) bouncing like 'twin sisters,' that sort of stuff, (but) he never made those comments directly to my daughter, he just completely destroyed her by telling her she was a horrible player. All the girls were afraid of him because of how he talked to them."
Bailey said she didn't complain to school officials until March, after her daughter refused to play for Acker in the state finals. At that time, other parents came to Bailey and asked if she had heard about what was happening to the other girls.
"I asked my daughter if what the parents said was true - about calling (the players) lesbians, and about the van incident - and she said 'yes,' so I went to the school counselor to complain and she said I was the ninth parent to complain so she was going to forward my report to Mr. Lesko."
Counselor Cindy Meekin refused to confirm Bailey's statement, saying, "This is a legal matter now so I can't comment."
According to Bailey and confirmed by two parents who did not want to be identified, Acker and an assistant coach were driving the team back to MHS in a school van from an away game and had dropped all the girls off at their cars except for one. That player was driven to the back of the school where the coaches allegedly yelled at her and told her "to keep her mouth shut" about the player's complaints.
Lesko said the investigation showed that the player asked to speak privately to the coaches away from the lot where the other girls' cars were parked and that she didn't claim to be held against her will, but that she "said something (to Milczarek-Desai) about being uncomfortable."
A report on the investigation was turned over to district officials April 11, but officials refused to release it to the Northwest EXPLORER, claiming that it would violate the privacy of the students involved and Acker.
Neither Hajek, Lesko nor Meekin reported the parental complaints to the State Department of Education.
"I'm not required to report every person who makes a claim, an allegation. I'm required to investigate those claims," Lesko said.
Amy Rezzonico, DOE public information officer, said state law requires districts to report to the DOE within 72 hours of "knowledge of a complaint (involving) immoral or unprofessional conduct with a minor." When asked if a male coach calling a female player a "lesbian" or "bisexual" would fall under this statute concerning unprofessional conduct, Rezzonico said, "Well, I would assume so, wouldn't you?"
According to the Arizona School Boards Association Regulation A-0311, districts are required to take appropriate action only "on all confirmed violations of policy."
Don Dickinson, who was the Canyon del Oro varsity girls basketball coach from 1997 to 1999 said "males coaching females is a very sensitive issue."
"Any male coach realizes - or he will realize very quickly after starting to coach - that there are simply things you can't say to girls that you are going to say to boys," Dickinson said. "Everything you say is taken more sensitively by females than males. Once, after a game, I said, 'Our big girls did really well for us.' The next day, they were so upset and I realized it would have been a lot better for me to say, 'Our tall, graceful girls did a good job.'"
Bailey said she was happy the district had recommended Acker's coaching contract not be renewed, but said she thought he should no longer teach either.
"I don't think the man should be around any kids at all. I really feel he's detrimental to children," she said. "I don't think you can separate the classroom and coach and actually I've heard some negative things about his classroom teaching methods. All I can say is, for myself, I will make sure none of my children ever have him as a teacher."
Dickinson agreed separating coaching from teaching is difficult, at least in the mind's of students.
"To my way of thinking, there's no separation between court and classroom. If something is said inappropriately in one area, kids don't say, 'He just does that on the court'," Dickinson said. "It will affect the classroom because it will be all over the school because girls talk."
Acker came to MHS from a two-year stint as an assistant women's basketball coach at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. Prior to that, he spent a year teaching math at Tucson's Cholla High School, 2001 W. Starr Pass Blvd., two years teaching math at Nogales High School and a year teaching math at the west campus of Pima Community College, 2202 W. Anklam Road. He did his student teaching in 1996 at Tortolita Middle School, 4101 W. Hardy Road. Acker has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from the University of Arizona with a minor in athletic coaching.