Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Athletic director demoted along with coach dismissal in Topsail High wrestling investigation

Topsail High School’s athletic director, Chris McGee, has been removed from his position following an investigation into the wrestling program. (Port City Daily/file photo)

PENDER COUNTY — Almost three months after Pender County Schools booted Topsail High School’s wrestling coach and announced an investigation into the program, the school’s athletic director has been removed from his position.

READ MORE: PCS to investigate high school wrestling program after coach is pushed out

The district released the final report from an investigation by Schwartz Law on Tuesday; investigators stated the district had sufficient cause to terminate Pete Smith, the head coach. The district also chose to demote Topsail High Athletic Director Chris McGee.

The report shows Smith and others involved in the wrestling program mishandled funds, broke school policies, along with North Carolina High School Athletic Association regulations, and oversaw a troubling environment that includes bullying and potential Title IX concerns.

In the head coach position since October 2021, Smith’s contract was not renewed after the season ended on Feb. 17, 2024. At the time, the school district announced it was investigating Smith and the wrestling program in response to “significant concerns” brought to the board’s attention by both school system staff and a significant portion of the Topsail High School community.

The report makes clear others were complicit in Smith’s actions, including Topsail High School administration and McGee. They were found to have failed to provide proper oversight of the program and report policy violations to PCS and the NCHSAA.

As a result, the athletic director position is vacant as of June 5. According to district spokesperson Bob Fankboner, McGee was reassigned to a teacher position, though still at Topsail High.

The investigation also found troubling or noncompliant conduct from other employees, including Principal Larry Obeda, Treasurer Stephanie Curry and Smith’s assistant coaches. Fankboner told PCD six employees have been issued letters of reprimand in relation to the report, but more information on them, including their names, are not public record.

The report, released on Tuesday, made the following conclusions about Smith’s conduct:

  • Failed to comply with district policies regarding financial administration
  • Allowed a non-school entity to use Topsail High facilities without an agreement, thus exposing the district to liability issues
  • Violated North Carolina High School Athletics Association policies by allowing wrestler to practice without physicals
  • Did not properly vet assistant coaches, of which he fired three over the course of one season
  • Led a team with multiple bullying issues
  • Likely violated Title IX

On the grounds of financial noncompliance, Schwartz Law found Smith mishandled funds garnered from fundraisers and non-school-affiliated wrestling camps, though it did not find evidence of stolen or unaccounted for money. To investigators, Smith, an at-will, non-faculty employee, said he was never fully trained on the district’s financial procedures.

The report shows Smith hosted an unauthorized fundraiser on June 4, 2023, at Matter More Coffee, a coffee shop Smith owned at the time. In advertising the event, Smith asked people to come get their car washed and buy a coffee; Schwartz Law found that no proceeds went to the THS wrestling program. Smith said this money went to fund THS wrestlers’ attendance at a Missouri camp, though this was not done; instead, the money was transferred to the THS Booster Club account.

Smith also diverted a portion of funds — $4,500 out of $13,500 — from an approved sponsorship fundraiser to the THS Booster Club.

In March 2022, Smith and assistant coach Edwin Aristizabal founded a wrestling club, Irontide Wrestling, though Smith told investigators he turned over control of the club to Chuck Johnson, the wrestling coach at Topsail Middle.

Still, Irontide was allowed to use THS facilities, namely the cafeteria, for practices despite no facility-use agreement signed and approved by the district. Johnson said he thought Smith handled this; Smith said he didn’t think an agreement needed to be signed because Irontide was a fundraiser, an opinion also endorsed by Athletic Director McGee.

Per policy, fundraisers are not exempt from the facility-use requirement.

Schwartz Law did find that Irontide donated money (which did make it to the THS wrestling account) and gear to THS wrestling as “compensation” for the unofficial cafeteria lease. The firm also decided McGee, Obeda and Curry knew about Irontide’s use of THS facilities and signed off on a fundraiser agreement that involved the club.

“Had an Irontide wrestler or anyone else been injured while Irontide was using the THS facility the District could have faced substantial potential liability,” the report states.

The report also highlights troubling incidents, including bullying among students and assistant coaches, which Smith failed to notify administration of per procedure.

The report notes a student injury in 2023 that was a result of “horseplay,” according to Smith. Schwartz Law state the coach did not file an incident or discipline report, plus the injury report misstated what the injury was. Full details on this incident have been redacted.

Though also heavily redacted, the report notes a bullying incident on the team that Smith became aware of via text screenshots; Smith was notified of what he described as “pretty bad” comments one Thursday, though did not notify McGee until the following Monday. These messages eventually were sent to central office, including to Superintendent Brad Breedlove.

Schwartz Law noted the incident was handled internally, with the bully being suspended but allowed to return with no formal discipline.

As for the coaches, Aristizabal, Lukas Engledow and Jarrid Braunagel were all fired during the first week of February 2024, though written notice was either not provided or done so very late.

Aristizabal and Engledow were fired by Smith in February for making disparaging comments on Instagram to athletes on New Hanover County’s Laney High School wrestling team. Some of the comments used the terms “TRASH KID” and “CHOKE BOY” to describe the Laney players.

Braunagel was fired for “berating” a wrestler after a lost match. His behavior was so aggressive, the report indicates, that another assistant coach, Mike May, had to step in.

Coaching staff were noted as having violated several NCHSAA regulations. The report states only three out of nine assistant coaches completed necessary training and paperwork per NCHSAA. The three compliant coaches were Terence Rohmeyer, Dylan Fuentes, and Braunagel. The district also did not have required background checks for Rohmeyer, Ethan Belvins and Tommy Lee.

The report places blame for the lack of documentation on athletic director McGee, though notes Smith was not completely forthcoming about who was on coaching staff.

Aristizabal, a paid staff member without any required trainings, was documented as conducting practice during “dead periods” and on Sundays, unbeknownst to Smith according to the report.

Several players were also allowed to practice without physicals, a NCHSAA violation. Despite numerous attempts from McGee, Assistant Athletic Director Chris Blake, and trainer Erin Kelly, coaching staff did not uphold this requirement; Smith even asked McGee to turn a “blind eye” to the missing physicals and according to the report.

It is unclear if the NCHSAA will take any punitive action against the THS wrestling team.

Schwartz Law redacted a lot of the reporting surrounding Title IX issues it found, though the report does not Smith’s refusal to coach female wrestlers, despite the THS team being coed.

McGee hired a female coach, Dashiniq Sidbury, and her lack of experience in wrestling constitutes a potential Title IX violation due to the differing qualifications required of the female and male coaches, per Schwartz Law.

The report also detailed Smith’s unwillingness to work with Sidbury and unfair treatment of trainer Kelly, with Smith telling both women not to attend practice.

The full report can be read below:

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