While they haven’t publicly announced it, there is real concern among some law enforcement officials that the Santa Barbara Unified School District has a problem on its hands. For the third time in recent years, a district coach has been arrested for sexual misconduct with an underage player. The latest incident involving 38-year-old Vic Alvarez, the girls softball coach at Santa Barbara High School, echoes Justin Sell’s case from 2013 as well as the most recent prosecution of Peter Jeschke in 2011.
Alvarez was booked May 14 in County Jail on a single count of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.” He was cited and released and appeared in court last week, but his arraignment was delayed as the District Attorney’s Office considers if and when to file charges. Alvarez, a Santa Barbara High School graduate with relatives in two local law enforcement agencies, started working as a campus security guard in 2011 before he became a walk-on softball coach in 2012.
According district spokesperson Brian Tanguay, the district started investigating Alvarez during the spring semester “based upon unconfirmed reports of irregular behavior.” Tanguay said Alvarez was then placed on paid administrative leave on April 24 “for conduct unrelated to the current charges.” The nature of that conduct and the described “irregular behavior” isn’t clear. On May 6, the district filed a report with the police department and fired Alvarez from his coaching position, “but [Alvarez] remains on administrative leave from his other position in accordance with legal requirements,” Tanguay said.
After a June 4 court hearing, Alvarez’s attorney, Josh Webb, spoke openly about the matter. Noting several times that the facts in the case have yet to be borne out, Webb said it’s his understanding that Alvarez and the female player, who graduated last Thursday, allegedly started their physical relationship in late February when she was a month or two away from turning 18. He explained the pair remain together and have the blessings of the teen’s parents.
While it was well-known among team members that the two were seeing each other, one or more of the players reportedly felt the teen received unfair extra playing time and issued a complaint with school administration. Webb said Alvarez’s current charge, which can be filed as a misdemeanor or felony, is not an offense that requires sex-offender registration. “It’s a technical violation of law,” he went on, describing Alvarez as “a single man coaching a team who met a gal. He didn’t know if she was 18 or not. … He’s in love with her.”
Problem of Perception?
News of Alvarez’s arrest comes on the heels of reports this month that longtime AYSO coach Jose Diaz of Buellton has been charged with having sex with a teenage girl and that Santa Maria high school basketball coach Brian Hook is being prosecuted for an inappropriate relationship with a female student. These stories fit into the seemingly nonstop barrage of countrywide media broadcasts that detail illicit acts committed by teachers and coaches with their students and players. Opinions differ over why these types of crimes are — or merely seem — more common.
Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig, a member of the DA Office’s Sexual Assault and Vulnerable Victims Unit, said “media coverage, the advent of the Internet, and the public’s access to information make the appearance that these cases have occurred more in recent years.” But that is simply not the case, he said. When asked if law enforcement agencies are more prone to distribute press releases about teacher/coach sex crimes compared to other statutory rape or child molestation incidents, Ladinig said not necessarily, “but because the possibility of educators or coaches having continued access to other children and/or other victims, sometimes press releases are necessary to inform and protect the public.”
DA Joyce Dudley, whose career has been defined by a number of high-profile sex crime cases, said coaches and teachers don’t abuse or molest children at a higher rate than other professions. “If there is one thing I have learned in the past 30-plus years in this field,” she said, “it is that no occupation, sexual preference, socio-economic condition, or cultural background is either more or less likely to abuse children.” Therefore, she went on, “It is incumbent upon all of us to be vigilant in our desire to protect them.” Dudley said her office doesn’t categorize offenders by profession, so data on total coach/teacher cases wasn’t immediately available.
Lieutenant Kelly Moore, a lead investigator in the Sheriff’s Office, agreed that “there is a fair amount of public interest in these types of cases. … It has to do with the shock and awe of a trusted relationship gone south.” Moore said the majority of statutory rape cases stem from a relationship between two young people of similar age that took a turn for the worse — a pair of 16- and 19-year-olds, he gave as an example, and “maybe the mom didn’t like the kid.” But no matter what the victim believes, Moore went on, he or she can’t give legal consent under California law. While a number of states have lowered the age to consent to 17 or 16 years old, California’s remains at 18.
Moore said he’s never heard of a victim’s parents endorsing the illegal acts and that it’s impossible to stereotype offenders by universally common traits. “From our perspective, these guys are predators,” he said. “Are they a wolf, dog, bear, lion? We can’t always say, but they’re all predators.” The degree of menace varies case by case, he went on, and some suspects “simply shouldn’t have let themselves get in that position.” Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover declined to release Alvarez’s May 14 booking photo, saying to do so would be an unlawful disclosure of his criminal history.
In the Field
The Santa Barbara Independent spoke to a number of Santa Barbara Unified School District coaches and athletic directors for this story, and while all of them wished to remain anonymous, they said the dynamic that develops between a player and a coach is a unique one that can reach levels of trust and appropriate intimacy comparable to the closeness of child and parent. Students are often around their coaches more than their teachers — sometimes for four years of high school that includes after-hours practices, road games, and so on — and sometimes feel more comfortable opening up to them than anyone else. “It’s an extremely high level of trust, so when a person violates it, it’s really painful,” one coach said.
Another source said the district does a commendable job of educating coaches and staff about appropriate boundaries, and teaches them how to avoid potentially troublesome situations like a coach being alone with a player or being asked for a ride home. Allegations are investigated swiftly and thoroughly, they said, and the district has zero tolerance for any misconduct. “There are no second chances,” one source said. Another said he fired a coach simply because the coach made the players uncomfortable. “I hated doing it, but kids feeling safe is the most important thing.”
Many of the people interviewed said there have always been inappropriate relationships between coaches and players, but school districts across the country are simply “dealing with the situations now as they always should have been.” Background checks and fingerprinting weed out “most of the weirdos,” one athletic director said, “but there are always people with bad intentions. … We can do everything right, and it can still happen. It’s our worst nightmare.”
District officials described their applicant screening process as “careful and rigorous.” The district currently employs 1,946 people — including part-time — and, right now, it has 199 coaches who are not teachers. (Teachers are given the first priority on coaching positions, and those who coach receive stipends.) No data was available on how many coaches are also certified employees. Walk-on coaches like Alvarez are seasonal employees who must sign a number of contracts like nondiscrimination forms, child abuse reporting requirements, and ethical conduct notices.
All applicants undergo a background check, which includes Live Scan fingerprinting, and they’re required to get an Activity Supervisor Clearance Certificate from the State of California, which requires California Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI fingerprint clearance. If a person is hired but then gets arrested, the district is immediately notified by the DOJ, and a decision to terminate is based on whether or not the offense violated the California Education Code. Direct oversight takes place at the school, and supervision of coaches is the responsibility of each campus’s athletic director. Sexual relations between a teacher or coach and a student are prohibited, even if the student is 18 or older.
Action Before Abuse
Yesenia Curiel with the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, which is contacted by police every time a rape or molestation in the city is investigated, said her organization regularly speaks to students about sexual assault and what it means to give legal consent. It’s her opinion that while more statutory rape cases are being reported by victims and their friends and family because of better education and support systems, the overall incident rate is also on the rise.
Curiel said much of the information passed on to students during her presentations has to do with power dynamics and the fact that a sexual assault is more likely to be committed by a person close to the victim. When a young teenager enters high school, she went on, they are surrounded by more and more adults, and they’re taught that while they need to be respectful and cooperative with authority figures, “you still have the right to say no.” Coaches in particular engender deep feelings of trust, and players often feel “they want nothing but good things” for them, Curiel said.
While in-class discussions take place multiple times a year — Curiel said she was recently invited by an English teacher to talk about a course text that contained explicit material — the Rape Crisis Center is in early discussions about offering more sit-downs with faculty and coaches. It’s also coordinating with other agencies and nonprofits for revamped and more robust initiatives. The district has always been receptive to such outreach, Curiel said.
Supposedly consensual cases can be especially challenging, Curiel explained. “We try to educate survivors about the law and the dynamics of a healthy relationship,” she said. “We give them examples of what is healthy, what is unhealthy, and explain what is happening to them.” Case workers offer teens practical scenarios of how the relationship would be problematic, noting how public dates would be difficult if not impossible and that the normal activities of an appropriate teenage relationship — like going to sports games and dances — would not be an option. They’re also educated about how a couple should be on an equal footing with equal power and that two people of very different ages have very different mind-sets and values.
When working with parents, Curiel continued, she talks about the long-term effects of abuse on a child’s development, noting that all members of her staff are bilingual, and part of their role is to educate newly immigrated cultures about California laws. “Sometimes there might be a challenge between traditions and beliefs and the law,” she said. In her experience, reports of abuse or statutory rape at schools are most often made directly to counselors or other staff members who then contact law enforcement.
Traditional education strategies like lectures on “good touch, bad touch” are still valuable and helpful, but the Rape Crisis Center and other groups are always looking at ways to better reach children and teens before they become victims. Luckily, Curiel said, Santa Barbara is rich in such resources, and students are often receptive to the message. And more and more, the state’s age of consent is becoming general knowledge among younger age groups.
While Curiel’s organization offers self-defense training, it also focuses on assertiveness and confidence skills to help teens protect themselves. “That can be more helpful than knowing where to kick somebody,” Curiel said.
If you or someone you know is the victim of sexual abuse, or if you need immediate counseling, contact the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center's 24-hour hotline at (805) 564-3696.