The 6-1 vote to open up the Altoona Area High School girls' basketball coach position Monday night came after parents and players, and their legal representation, presented notarized written statements and accusations that coach Jill Helsel dealt emotional bullying to some players and that her starting players, who because of favor shown by Helsel or fear of her, allegedly perpetuated a culture of bullying that left some feeling like outsiders.
One of the notarized statements was from Alexis Palfey, who transferred to the Hollidaysburg Area School District because of Helsel's treatment of her and other players.
However, the more than 40 people at the special Altoona Area School board meeting included many strong supporters of Helsel. Her supporters included players who, through tears, addressed the crowd to say they earned their positions as starters. Also in support of Helsel was NAACP Altoona Chapter President Don Witherspoon, who said he "doesn't like to play the race card, but something doesn't seem right." He questioned why Helsel, a black woman, was the only coach in the district facing such accusations.
Helsel, her legal counsel Wayne Hippo, and assistant coach Jill Lane sat in the back of the packed room.
Altoona Attorney Steven Passarello, representing a family of a player alleging Helsel bullied their daughter, urged the board to look at the mounting testimonies against Helsel.
He said when he was first contacted about the issue, he didn't think much of it. He said there are many people who are disgruntled because a coach didn't give their child playing time. But then, he said, "This is different."
"There are a number of girls and families I've talked to, that, in my humble opinion, establishes a pattern of emotional abuse and emotional bullying. It is a situation where girls are ostracized from the team."
Many of the complaints were made last year during a closed session with the board.
"I'm not sure why they were ignored. But I think its time they are no longer ignored," Passarello said.
The accusations revolve around shunning certain players.
The accusations of bullying also included players, who allegedly went along with Helsel's alleged actions. The layers of accusations became so tangled that the same players accused of bullying were also victims, depending on who was at the microphone.
And board member John Donley's daughter, Sarah Donley defended her father, who's been the subject of rumors concerning his influence over her starting position.
Donley rejected those rumors, but abstained from the vote to open up Helsel's position because his daughter was one of her starting players.
After the public hearing, the board retreated into a private executive session. When they returned, board athletic committee chairman Dick Lockard made the motion to open up Helsel's position.
Ron Johnston voted against it. Tim Lucas was absent. Cheryl Rupp, Sharon Bream, John Klingeman, Maryann Joyce Bistline, Judy Berryman and Lockard voted to open up the position.
After the meeting, Superintendent Tom Otto made comments to address the general issue of bullying but they were not directed at Helsel.
"Everything that's going on - students reporting it about each other, adults worried about what other adults were saying - tonight was unreal.
"From my perception, the position opened up because of the inability to pull the program together."
Otto said Helsel has the opportunity to reapply for the position.
Helsel comforted players who sobbed after the vote.
"You will be OK," she told them.
Hippo, her legal counsel, said little after the vote.
"What I will say is she is not a bully."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.