Gray accused of abuse toward players; says he's 'not a bully coach'

Cary Ashby • Updated Jan 10, 2018 at 9:48 AM

It started out on a positive note and ended ugly. Tensions rose quickly as the public participation portion of Tuesday’s school board meeting addressed allegations of abuse against Norwalk varsity boys’ basketball coach Steve Gray.

So newly-elected board president Lisa Wick stopped the session, saying the board hadn’t had an opportunity to discuss the issue. After she did so, several people said if this is the forum to express their views and they aren’t allowed to do so, they wondered where they could do that.

Board vice president John Lendrum said public participation is an opportunity to hear feedback from the public, but it isn’t the time for the board to make decisions.

“We are dealing with a severely bullying coach,” said parent Mary Shephard, who accused Gray of jerking her son “by his shirt” and moving him two feet.

Another parent, Keri Zendejas, was concerned about the lack of respect. She said her son chose not to finish the basketball season because he couldn’t handle reportedly being spit on or being told he wasn’t good enough.

Shephard called it “an ongoing bullying situation.” Her son is Norwalk High School junior Trey Johnson, who quit the team about two weeks ago.

“I removed him from the team,” said Shephard, who accused Gray of being emotionally and physically abusive with her son “along with several other teammates.” 

Wick said the school board had received a letter from Shephard.

“We’ve heard all that; we don’t need to hear it again,” Wick told her. “You got your point across with your letter.”

Nick Lee, the junior varsity coach who teaches history and Teen Leadership Corps, had current and former players and their parents stand who were at the meeting to support Gray. Several dozen people stood.

Lee said the school needs “a team community mentality” and there have been “zero parent complaints” about Gray. Wick requested Lee and others who spoke — or attempted to — during public participation to refrain from naming specific people. The board president started the meeting by reading the rules governing public participation.

“We need more uniters and less dividers,” said Lee, who added the last two weeks have been a major distraction for players, students and the coaching staff. “It’s time to end this now.”

Lee received documentation from 44 players who pledged to support Gray. There was a lengthy round of applause when he ended his presentation.

Also receiving energetic applause was Dennis Stieber, whose stepson graduated from NHS in 2008 and is now the Bellevue jayvee basketball coach.

Stieber said NHS has an “A-1 quality coaching staff” and he’s never heard or seen any physical or emotional abuse.

“Are they tough yes? Yes. … Are they abusive? Absolutely not,” he added. “In case you didn’t know, you have a quality coaching staff here.”

Gray, who didn’t speak during the meeting, provided the Reflector with a written statement.

“I want to thank the administration, members of the Norwalk board of education and this awesome community for their support throughout this ordeal. The allegations Ms. Shephard made against me in the meeting tonight are all lies. I have remained silent for over a decade while board member Steve Linder has sought to end my career. Because Ms. Shephard feels empowered to lie and speak untruths due to the support she is receiving from Mr. Linder I can no longer remain silent,” he wrote.

“I want to start by saying that the allegations against me are false. I am not a bully coach. I am not an abusive coach. Do I yell? Yes. Am I tough on my players? Yes. Have I ever threatened a player with violence? Never! Does yelling and being tough equal abusive behavior? Absolutely not,” Gray continued.

“While winning basketball games is an important goal of coaching, it is not the only one. It is also a goal of mine to instill character, integrity and tenacity in every young man in my program. I have always stressed these qualities. My definition of being a tough coach is developing strong young men who will be able to face adversity head on and come out on top.”

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