Prominent HS Water Polo Coach Stuck in Limbo After Misconduct Charges Fail to Escalate

Randy Burgess. Photo Courtesy: SoFlo Water Polo Blog

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In these charged times, when accusations of improper sexual conduct by public figures seem to crop up daily, the events that have transpired over the last seven months of Randall “Randy” Burgess’s life should not, perhaps, be entirely shocking. Considered one of California top high school water polo coaches—with three Olympians as former players—Burgess has been fighting for his professional career due to allegations of sexual assault, which thus far have proven baseless.

Especially distressing to Burgess, with more than three decades experience as an educator in the San Diego County public school system, is that co-workers with whom he has worked for years sought to bar him from his tenured position at Coronado High School, because —as his lawyer, Matthew Herron alleges—they were more concerned with issues of liability than upholding the excellent reputation of a highly respected member of this seaside community minutes away from downtown San Diego.

coronado_sunset-burgess

Coronado sunset. Photo Courtesy: John McCauley

“None of the proceedings that apply to public employees that require some sort of charge, a hearing—what you might call due process—none of that was put in place,” Herron said in a recent telephone conversation from his office in San Diego.

“I’m appalled at the way the Coronado Unified School District treated Randy,” said John McCauley, who has known Burgess since 1994 and played four years for him at Coronado High School. “I think they should be held accountable. And Randy has been devastated over this.”

Allegation Versus Reputation

Burgess, over the course of his long career as a teacher and coach, has compiled an exceptional record in California water polo. The most obvious indicators of his success are the three Olympians who played for Burgess at Coronado: Genai Kerr, Jesse Smith, and Layne Beaubien. According to McCauley, captain of the men’s water polo team his senior year, a number of NCAA Division I “superstars” came out of Coronado specifically because of its coach.

“There was not this abundance of talent in Coronado; it’s a very small town,” McCauley said. “The common denominator between success and all these people is Randy Burgess.”

burgess_DEC17_02

Photo Courtesy: Coronado Eagle & Journal

But Burgess’s professional and private lives began to unravel last April, when District Superintendent Karl Mueller was notified of a government tort claim filed against the district on March 29, 2017 alleging sexual abuse. According to testimony provided in Superior Court of the State of California on September 6, 2017, Mueller testified that he reacted swiftly to the serious accusation, though it appears to some that in so doing he disregarded Burgess’s decades of blemish-free service to children in Coronado’s tightly knit community.

The original charges against Burgess were shocking and seemed outlandish; he was accused of sexually molesting a minor in 2012 in the public bathrooms adjacent to the Coronado High School pool. Burgess vehemently denied this claim, and a September 27, 2017 article in The Coronado Eagle & Journal reported his response to the allegations: “The individual [in question] was a seventh grader, who I have never met, never taught, never coached and never had him under my supervision at any point, anywhere. I did not know this person in any capacity.”

According to attorney Herron, the CUSD Board and supervisor knew approximately one month after removing Burgess from the premises that the allegations against him were in doubt. The district responded to the original civil claim by formally disputing the charges. But not only did his supervisor decline to notify him of this development, Burgess continued to be barred from using the high school facilities.

Then occurred a further blow to Burgess’s prestige and livelihood. Polo in Paradise, a nationally known water polo camp that Burgess founded and has been involved with for the past 30 years, and is entirely separate from any of his responsibilities with Coronado High School, was scheduled to begin in June of this year.

“He was told he could not participate in that program on the [Coronado High School] pool deck,” said Herron. Burgess said that a text from Rita Beyers, Assistant Superintendent, threatened him with dismissal if he showed up at the pool.

When asked for comment, Kami McElligott, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent/Board, Coronado Unified School District, responded via email: “The district did not receive any communication from Mr. Burgess regarding the event in question nor did the district send Mr. Burgess any communication regarding the event.”

Ostensibly, as he testified in court, Mueller’s concern was for the safety of students, but in a testy exchange among Herron, Mueller and Sam Sherman, the district’s lawyer, Mueller in essence admitted that Burgess, whom he knew personally for seven years, was not a danger to the students.

But he was a danger to the financial stability of the school district.

“The Truth Sets Randy Free”

There has been a tremendous outpouring of backing for Burgess. Of his defenders, John McCauley is the most determined and has solicited 1,200 signatures to a petition attesting Burgess’s innocence. All the details of the case easily roll off his tongue, and it was his social media efforts publicizing his former coach’s plight that connected an extensive network of supporters. “I can attribute all my success to what Randy taught me,” he said in a telephone conversation.

mccauley_burgess_DEC17

John McCauley , Randy Burgess. Photo Courtesy: John McCauley

Scrolling through an online petition of support uncovers some of the biggest names in the sport, including Adam Krikorian, head coach for the U.S. Women’s Senior National Team, and Bruce Watson, a long-time community college coach who for the past three years has led the men’s program at San Jose State.

The main focus of McCauley’s and the signatories’ wrath is not the unnamed individual who made the allegations, but the hierarchy of the CUSD. “We are completely targeting the superintendent of Coronado Unified School District, Karl Mueller, the assistant superintendent, Rita Byers, and the [board] president, Maria Simon,” McCauley said. “They decided to side with an insurance company over the real concerns of the Coronado community and the real safety of the students and teachers.”

“I have known Randy Burgess for over 30 years as a coach and friend, and the sport of water polo is a family and very close.” Bruce Watson wrote. “I have coached on the high school, community college and now the university level, and I have never interacted with a more positive role model for his students and athletes.

“I can only hope that the financial pressure to protect a school district will not be allowed to continue to tarnish and negatively affect the life and coaching history of someone like Randy.”

Preponderance of Evidence vs. Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Despite triggering what may prove to be a miscarriage of justice, the actions by the CUSD leadership have a clear basis in legal responsibility for ensuring the safety of its students, as well as for steering clear of what might be a financial quagmire. Title IX—the landmark 1972 law that mandated equal rights for both sexes with regard to educational opportunities—also now mandates how sexual assault is to be handled in public schools around the country. And in the light of the current wave of allegations as well as those recently past—think Jerry Sandusky—the implications for both alleged accusers and the institutions they are associated with, it is perhaps understandable, if not particularly evenhanded, that Burgess was ostracized.

The Sandusky criminal case at Penn State is, of course, a potent tale of caution and the proximate reason why institutions will continue to perhaps be overcautious regarding any suggestion of sexual impropriety occurring on their premises. Not only was Sandusky sentenced to up to 60 years in prison for 52 accounts of sexual abuse of young boys; Penn State Athletic Director Timothy Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz and President Graham Spanier were all convicted of child endangerment for covering up the abuse.

CUSD_hearing_DEC17

CUSD School Board Meeting on Oct. 19 discussing Randy Burgess. Photo Courtesy: Coronado Times

Herron, Burgess’s lawyer, does not accept this rationalization. As he summed up, after all that his client endured, he was not exonerated—perhaps because the school district’s paramount concern is for its own reputation.

“We’re going to let you back in the classroom because we did not get sued,” was how Herron paraphrased the CUSD response after Burgess was reinstated on November 27, a date that coincided with the closing of a six-month window the original claimant had to file suit against the district.

Former player McCauley, who has four children, was adamant that the CUSD was concerned with itself first and foremost.

“The reason why that occurred is that the school district has to show that they’re not negligent here,” he said.  “The insurance company will tell that superintendent that that teacher needs to be put on paid administrative leave.”

The “insurance company” McCauley alludes to is actually an arm of the San Diego County Office of Education. Known as the Risk Management Joint Powers Authority (JPA), it consists of 65 member districts and charter schools who purchase insurance programs that provide protection against both property and liability losses.

Music Watson, APR, Chief Communications Officer for San Diego County Office of Education, pushed back against the impression that the JPA was calling the shots in deciding the fate of district employees.

“As with the school districts that are members of the Risk Management Joint Powers Authority (JPA), our first priority is student safety and well-being,” said Watson in an emailed statement. “Each district and charter school has its own policies and procedures regarding investigations, discipline, etc. The JPA is not involved in those aspects of any cases in any way.”

He may be back in the classroom, but the threat to Burgess and other teachers remains. His reputation, of course, will never be the same, as the taint of an allegation of assault—even one that is never proven—is permanent.

“It sets this precedent,” McCauley said. “If somebody wants to allege something of a teacher to get them removed from a classroom, they can allege whatever they want.”

With reporting by Chip Brenner

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Three comments: One, Title IX does not govern this situation. Instead Mr. Burgess is a union employee and his employment is subject to a Collective Bargaining Agreement, which requires a hearing before suspending a teacher. Otherwise, the California Education Code only permits a summary suspension in the case of a criminal charge, which the District Attorney declined to bring because the claim was not credible. The District made up its own rules and standards applicable only to this case and changed these rules repeatedly during the suspension. Two, the author gives into the moralistic temptation to draw comparisons to other cases which serves no useful purpose. This is not a Jerry Sandusky case. Three the “no communication” statement about the Summer Program is a complete falsehood. The email reads in part: “If you do come to the BBMAC pool deck tomorrow, you will be asked to leave. I hope you do so as, if you remain, you will be in violation of a CUSD directive.”

  2. avatar
    Maria Simon

    Regarding Mr. Herron’s comments: One, Mr. Burgess was NOT suspended by the district, he was put on Paid Administrative Leave, which does not require a hearing per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This argument by Mr. Herron was denied in the San Diego Superior Court ruling on October 20, 2017 (Randall Burgess vs. Coronado Unified School District), in which the judge ruled in favor of CUSD. Two, it is preposterous to think that within the strict legal framework that public schools operate that a district “made up its own rules and standards applicable only to this case.” Three, due to the district’s policy of protecting the rights and privacy of its teacher by not commenting on personnel matters, Mr. Herron and Mr. McCauley continue to make unchallenged accusations against CUSD regarding the case. Four, if Mr. Burgess and Mr. Herron had not filed the (unsuccessful) lawsuit against the district, the allegation of sexual misconduct from the alleged victim never would have been made public during the normal course of due process for all parties. Five, Mr. Burgess is actually not “Stuck in Limbo,” he has returned to his job teaching physical education at Coronado High School (he retired from his CHS water polo coaching position in 2015).

Author: Michael Randazzo

avatar
Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

Current Swimming World Issue


Trouble Viewing on Smart Phones, Tablets or iPads? Click Here