Reader angered, saddened by OCHS equestrian coach's violations
I started following the story about Oregon City High School equestrian coach Angie Wacker's recent conviction of four ethics violations for a few reasons. I'd heard whispers throughout the years about a bad-faith actor in the local 4-H horse community. Since I am not an equestrian, I had no idea at the time who it pertained to.
My interest was undeniably peaked when Pamplin Media Group subsequently printed the stories of the two former Oregon High School Equestrian Team (OHSET) athletes, Abigail Norton and Ashley Maestas, each describing different, but grueling, experiences on the OHSET team under this same coach (including major injuries). I contacted the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and requested a copy of the materials for myself, since they are all available to the public (with names of the minors redacted), and was absolutely stunned by what I read. I highly encourage anyone who is curious about this case to request a copy for yourself.
What stood out immediately was the sheer number of girls included in the report. Due to the redactions, it is hard to tell the exact number, but it is safe to say it contains the experiences of more than 10 girls. TEN girls?!? This isn't a trickle — this is a flood. And their stories were equally as riveting as Abigail and Ashley's. Each girl in the report had a story about (what I consider) severe bullying, harassment, cyberstalking and abuse by Angie Wacker going back years. And you can see it in Angie's own words through text messages she sent to female student athletes on the OHSET team, a team she has coached since 2014, that are quite honestly shocking to read.
I've been an athlete my entire life and had numerous coaches from grade school through college and I have never been spoken to the way Angie spoke to the young girls on her team. It was immediately clear that this is something much bigger than simply disgruntled former athletes.
One parent went to OCHS Athletic Director Andy Jones regarding a series of inappropriate text messages Angie sent her daughter, a current OHSET athlete at the time. When she went to the OHSET Facebook page to get the details for the end-of-year party held for all current OHSET athletes, she was shocked to find that both she and her daughter had been blocked. The Facebook page, managed solely by Angie, was where all pertinent OHSET-related team information was posted. Thinking it was surely a mistake the parent texted Angie who informed them they were "not invited" because she didn't like what the minor's "pothead friend mouthed to the girls at lunch today!"
Andy agreed that the text message was indeed inappropriate and that her daughter should not be excluded from a team event due to a false, unproven accusation by the coach's daughters. But Andy did nothing. The minor never attended the party because Angie never shared the information, nor was she or her daughter, who remained a current OHSET athlete on the team, ever allowed access to the team Facebook page again. And this text exchange was just the tip of the iceberg.
When the families couldn't get help from the OCHS Principal Carey Wilhelm, Superintendent Larry Didway or anyone else at the district (and they clearly tried), they went to OHSET Executive Director Candi Bothum. She met with them and listened to their statements but didn't realize that several of the girls had suffered substantial injuries — injuries Candi admitted in the meeting were not reported to OHSET or to school officials, as they should have been by Angie or her advisors. She offered to speak with Andy about Angie and her behavior but didn't do so for … four months! In the meantime, more girls continued to get bullied and harassed. Once Candi finally spoke with Andy, he told her that he was "hearing these allegations for the first time" (despite numerous complaints on record with him long before that date) and he felt the complaints were simply "retribution for other issues." None of the families or OHSET athletes being subjected to the ongoing abuse ever heard from Candi again.
Finally, the families were allowed to present evidence to the Oregon City School Board (District 62) in a closed meeting. They submitted statements, letters from licensed trauma counselors who represented multiple girls, Facebook posts and scores of inappropriate text messages, including text messages the coach sent minor athletes late at night unbeknownst to their parents. If it isn't appropriate for a male coach to send female athletes text messages late at night, then why should it be for a female coach? Within hours of that closed meeting the families received an email stating the board was not only keeping the coach, but they had reviewed Andy's "investigative findings." Yet not one person who made a complaint, not one of those families listed in the report, were ever contacted by Andy or anyone from the school, despite begging for an investigation. The only parents Andy spoke with were the ones that called for meetings with him out of frustration.
As a nice reward for their efforts, several girls received a letter from an attorney (hired by Angie) threatening to sue them for appearing before the school board in the first place. Hiring an attorney to threaten kids when they were following the complaint process set forth by the district seems to be the very definition of harassment.
In January, Angie, was convicted of four ethics violations in a unanimous decision by the seven commissioners on the panel. "This was a clear and obvious example of self-dealing," said Ethics Commissioner Nathan Sosa in the audio recording (also available on the ethics website), "...that there were no red flags raised is alarming and that you have OHSET saying this is just how it's done is even more alarming." Finally, someone listened and investigated.
After reading through all the material (and there is a lot of material), it isn't nearly as shocking to realize why investigations have now been opened at just about every institution that oversees a public school. Anyone can file a complaint, but an institution like the Department of Education doesn't simply open an investigation because someone asks for it. Evidence is what opens that door and I can tell you, there appears to be an overwhelming amount of that here.
Despite all of this, officials at Oregon City High School, OHSET and even 4-H (of which Angie is a also a current leader) stands by her side, tall and proud. What kind of message does that send to students facing similar situations? If this is the best they can do, then perhaps we should start over. Because, if there are 10 girls and abuse going on of this caliber, then it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out there is likely a lot more victims out there.
This story makes me angry and incredibly sad. The system built to "protect" failed spectacularly. But, now that I have the information, I will do whatever I can to help, and I hope anyone reading this will too.
Debbie Ethell is a resident of West Linn.
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