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A shadow over Santa Margarita's football title

ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

The conviction of two assistant coaches on marijuana possession charges was hidden from players and students as the team went on to win the state championship.

December 29, 2011|Eric Sondheimer
  • Members of the Santa Margarita football team celebrate after winning the CIF Division I state championship at the Home Depot Center on Dec. 16.
Members of the Santa Margarita football team celebrate after winning the… (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles…)

Santa Margarita's football team will be on a victory recognition tour over the next few weeks, with campus assemblies, recognition from the City Council and a team banquet.

But somebody should tell Coach Harry Welch and Principal Ray Dunne to halt the pomp and circumstance until a very serious matter is addressed: How did two assistant football coaches convicted of marijuana possession continue to coach all season with no notification to parents or players?

The school finally acted Thursday night and fired the two coaches, but the question remains, why wasn't action taken sooner? Why weren't parents of students and players notified? This has all the makings of a coverup.

Not until the Orange County Register revealed the convictions in an online article Dec. 22 did the school finally send out a letter to parents detailing its version of what happened to assistant coaches Sean Coen and Robert Hendricks, who pleaded guilty Sept. 15 to misdemeanor possession charges, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.

DA spokeswoman Farrah Emami said authorities found three mature marijuana plants, 229 immature plants, watering and lighting systems and a pay-owe notebook in the San Juan Capistrano garage where Coen and Hendricks were living.

That's enough to raise serious concerns about what transpired. And yet, the coaches were there at Home Depot Center this month when Santa Margarita won the CIF state championship Division I bowl game.

Welch said he had been told by his administration and the Diocese of Orange not to discuss the matter. Santa Margarita is a Diocese of Orange school.

The silence only added to the intrigue, considering that Coen was a central figure in a weekly video story, "Tough Knocks," produced by the Register that followed Santa Margarita's players and coaches all season. And Welch, right before the state bowl game, said Coen was the best candidate from his assistant coaches to one day become a head coach.

Does anyone at Santa Margarita understand the seriousness of what happened? Santa Margarita is a Catholic high school that purportedly holds its students to high standards of moral and ethical conduct. It's a big reason parents send their children there.

I don't see the football program being held to a similar standard, based on the fact two assistant coaches convicted of drug charges were allowed to continue to work with teenagers without any notification to parents.

On Thursday night, in a message posted on the school's website, Dunne announced the two coaches had been fired following the conclusion of an internal investigation. The school found that "sound judgment was not exercised by either man in allowing marijuana to be grown in their garage."

Dunne added, "Mr. Coen and Mr. Hendricks had every opportunity prior to and after Sept. 15th to inform their head coach, the athletic administration or the school's administration of the facts surrounding their case and neither did so."

Should they have been fired? I don't know the answer to that, but common sense would indicate they should have been removed and forced to start over at another school to prove they had learned their lesson.

Welch has coached for more than 30 years. Coen played for him at Canyon Country Canyon. This may have been a one-time mistake, but it was a big one, with consequences that didn't seem to affect his status with the Santa Margarita program until Thursday night.

A big question is how long did Santa Margarita know about the criminal matter, because the two coaches were arrested more than a year ago, on Dec. 14, 2010, and charged with felony cultivation of marijuana and possession for sale. Charges subsequently were reduced to misdemeanor possession. Each was sentenced on Sept. 15 to 90 days of jail with the option to instead serve in a community work program, along with making a $500 donation to the Victim Wellness Emergency Fund and serving 18 months' probation.

Typically, schools receive notification from law enforcement about employees who are arrested on felony charges. Principal Dunne stated in his letter to parents Thursday night that the diocese was alerted Sept. 15 and put Coen on administrative leave Oct. 3 while it investigated, then returned him to duty Oct. 10.

Santa Margarita claimed that Welch, the athletic administration or the school administration did not know the complete facts of the case until launching an internal investigation this month.

It still doesn't explain how the two coaches were allowed to continue with drug convictions.

Contrast the secrecy Santa Margarita employed with the transparency of Vista Murrieta, which might have missed out on being selected for a bowl game because it was forced to forfeit five games in October for using an ineligible player when its administration self-reported the violation.

Who's teaching the right lessons?

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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