According to her legal advisor, Jill Helsel was mischaracterized as a bully at Monday's Altoona Area School District Board of Directors meeting in which her position as Lady Lions varsity girls basketball coach was opened.
"She is not a mean or vindictive person. She is a tough coach who has brought an awful lot to a lot of girls' lives," Altoona attorney Wayne Hippo said of Helsel.
The job was opened by a 6-1 vote with board member John Donley, who has a daughter who is a returning starter on the team, abstaining.
Those pushing for Helsel's ouster alleged that she emotionally tormented players, used profanity, engaged in and promoted shunning of certain players and pressured players about aspects of their life away from her team, like participating in other sports at Altoona or playing for one AAU program over another. Several of the players making the accusations transferred to other schools.
Helsel did not return a message left on her voicemail Wednesday evening. Hippo, though, said he thought the allegations by parents, players and their legal representative - which included several notarized statements - of bullying actually were more a reflection of dissatisfaction with playing time and unreasonable expectations in a very competitive program than they were of any inappropriate behavior on Helsel's part.
"You have a lot of girls over three or four grade years competing for eight (starting and key substitute) positions. I think sometimes parents and sometimes kids feel a sense of entitlement," said Hippo, whose daughter was coached by Helsel. "When we have that many good kids, the differences are small and are viewed by different people from different perspectives.
"When it becomes evident to some that your lifelong desire to be a Lady Lion or for your daughter to be a Lady Lion isn't going to work out the way you hoped, different people handle it different ways. Some people perceive slights at practice - anger or rudeness or bitterness - if a coach yells anymore. When the dream is in jeopardy, it becomes sort of magnified. ... When you are angry and you have these perceptions, you actually start believing some of these things are bullying and vindictive because everything is magnified because of the emotions."
Hippo said it was frustrating for parents and players who could be "stars" at other area schools but weren't good enough to be top contributors at Altoona because of the deeper talent pool and the program's tradition. Altoona is one of five Class AAAA schools in District 6, and the schools girls basketball program has won two national championships, four PIAA titles and 23 district championships since 1981. Forty Lady Lions have gone on to Division I colleges on scholarship, one of which is Helsel, who led the team to two district championships and 6-AAAA finals appearances in all four of her years as coach.
According to Hippo, transfers from the program have been going on since Art Taneyhill was coaching in the 1980s. He didn't think Helsel was the primary reason for players leaving the school or the team.
"There's going to be more transfers, because it's my understanding that there's a flood of talent coming again," Hippo said. "What's going to happen is, with that flood of talent, someone's going to be nine, 10, 11 or 12 on the bench, and they're not going to be happy?"
Hippo also questioned why action to remove Helsel was taken when it was. Many of the notarized statements were dated before a similar meeting last year, after which Helsel was retained as coach by a 6-2 vote.
"That was the shocking thing about the other night," Hippo said. "The administration investigated thoroughly a lot of the accusations and wound up recommending her. A lot of it was old, and already investigated and already responded to it. Based on those findings, they retained her last year."
Hippo said he understood that members of the administration recommended Helsel be retained this time, too. Athletic director Phil Riccio would neither confirm nor deny that, citing confidentiality in personnel matters.
Although Helsel was accused of bullying, Hippo said he didn't believe it would affect her position as a teacher in the junior high school. He declined comment on whether he would represent Helsel in any legal response or if Helsel could or would attempt to file a grievance through the teachers union.
Hippo did believe, however, the school board put itself into a difficult situation in at least one way.
"What we saw was the board's willing to let the parents pick the coach," Hippo said.
Riccio said the school is accepting applications, first internally, through the end of next week and hasn't set a timetable to have a new coach is in place. In the interim, Riccio believed assistant coach Miriam Colledge would be handling most of the offseason program, including summer league teams.
Helsel, who continues to work with the Yellow Jackets AAU program, has been given the option to reapply, but sources believed it is unlikely she would do so. Hippo said he was unsure.
"That decision needs to be made after a few days of letting the emotion fall away and analyze things from the proper mindset," Hippo said. "I certainly hope she does."