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Ryan Ferguson Is a Total Savage When It Comes To Schooling Us About Wrongful Convictions on MTV

Photo Courtesy MTV

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No matter how hard of a boner you have for police — or how bitter the taste in your mouth is following recent headline-making actions by authorities — the story of Ryan Ferguson will likely open your eyes to the harsh reality of a flawed justice system in America. Over the past ten years, one person every hour went to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.

In 2004, Ferguson was a college student in Missouri when he was arrested for the 2001 murder of a newspaper’s sports editor named Kent Heiholt. He was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison, missing holidays with his loved ones and opportunities to hug his mom for more than two seconds without getting reprimanded by an abrasive security guard.

He eventually proved his innocence and was released in 2013, after nearly a decade locked in a cage.

Now, the 31-year old is spreading awareness of the crooked steps often taken when convicting a murderer by exploring cases of people who claim to be wrongfully convicted, along with Exoneration Project investigator Eva Nagao, on the new MTV show, “Unlocking the Truth.”

Better than the Weekend had the chance to speak with both of them, as well as the show’s executive producer, Adam Kassen, before the August 17 premiere, where we discovered some terrifying truths.

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Photo Courtesy MTV

Better than the Weekend: After spending nearly a decade fighting behind bars for your freedom, why would you want to involve yourself with the legal system again by doing this show?

Ryan Ferguson: It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do. The fact is, I lost ten years of my life for no reason at all. I learned that this is happening to a lot of people. This can happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason whatsoever. Unless I can use my voice to help bring about awareness and stop this from happening to other people, those ten years of my life will have happened for nothing. I can’t accept that.

Eva, what inspired you to investigate wrongful convictions?

Eva Nagao: My grandparents were Japanese immigrants. They met in internment camp in Manzanar during World War II, so I think their has been this common thread of awareness of incarceration in my family that’s changed how we view the world. That really lead me to the legal profession, in particular wrongful convictions.

Why are so many people wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn’t commit?

Ferguson: The job of law enforcement — police and prosecutors — is not to determine guilt or innocence. Their job is to build a case and let a jury decide that. That means hiding evidence, creating evidence, manipulating evidence to build a case and get convictions. They can do that and not have the fear of getting in trouble for that. That’s wrong. That’s leading to people losing their lives. That is leading to a victim not getting their justice.

Nagao: We have a country that is disproportionally incarcerating, convicting, investigating and charging black men and women, and then we also have a system where people are able to turn a blind eye. There’s so much prosecutory power. A prosecutor can charge you with a crime excessively. They can give you a huge sentence. What’s a reasonable person going to do? Even an innocent person is going to take a deal and plead guilty based with a choice like that. They’re going to want to see their family again one day. For that reason, there are actually so many more wrongful convictions we will never, never hear about.

How can the justice system be improved?

Ferguson: Awareness. If a prosector manipulates evidence, if they get people to lie, if they know someone is perjuring themselves, they should get in trouble. Once we’re aware of it, we can stand up and make a difference by demanding accountability. We’re well on our way, but it’s still going to be a long fight.

Ryan Ferguson Eva Nagao

Photo Courtesy MTV

It takes a lot of faith in humanity to believe someone convicted of a crime is innocent. Do you struggle with the thought of someone not being innocent?

Nagao: Absolutely. You develop a real bond with someone when you’re struggling in the trenches with people who are fighting for their life. The thought that they are being disingenuous with you is heartbreaking. But I think on the other side of that, you understand that people are doing what they can to survive. The important thing to me is showing the path to people being wrongfully convicted. Guilty people can be wrongfully convicted. No person who is wrongfully convicted should be in prison.

That’s a bold statement.

Nagao: If we want the legal system to work, in order to give us and our community justice, then we have to hold it to its highest standard. That means if people cheat and people lie and if the evidence is wrong — even if that person is guilty — it still means that they don’t belong in prison.

“Unlocking the Truth” is coming out during a time when people are divided about trusting law enforcement. Ryan, after your experience, do you trust law enforcement or do you live in fear that they can arrest you again for a crime you didn’t commit? 

Ferguson: We should all be afraid of the police. They have far too much power and no accountability and that’s a frightening thing. There are great authorities out there, but I don’t think anyone should believe the authorities will properly handle their case. In an interrogation, their goal is to get a confession, not to find the truth.

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Photo Courtesy MTV

Adam, has producing this show affected your view on law enforcement?

Adam Kassen: This is not a show at all about bashing cops or bashing prosecutors, but it is trying to take a hard look at some real problems we have in our justice system, and we have a great example with Ryan. Really, if it can happen to Ryan, it can happen to any one. There’s a lot of conversation and anger on both sides about police abuse and the way police are being treated. This show will give a thoughtful conversation on why people get convicted and what are the things we can do to prevent that, like accountability for the prosecutors and training.

How will the show look at these alleged wrongful conviction cases differently than the first time they were under investigation?

Kassen: This project really highlights that when you’re accusing someone of committing a serious, violent crime that is going to take away that person’s life, you really need to look at all the facts. If the people watching see the facts as Ryan and Eva explored, hopefully this will be some kind of call to action.

Ferguson: We don’t go in trying to build a case of innocence, we try to determine the facts of the case and see if we come up with a different conclusion. We’re doing what he hope the authorities would have done.

“Unlocking the Truth” airs Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. from August 17 through September 28. 

 

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Damn Scranton, Back at It Again with the Questionable Taxes!

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As perilously as a sorority girl relying on iced coffee to keep her life together on a Monday morning, the city of Scranton is calculating nefarious taxes on just about any thing and any one they can to safeguard its seemingly incompetent leadership.

Scranton’s latest target: John Basalyga. The entrepreneur was billed earlier this month an overwhelming $254,920.80 for questionable taxes on a parking garage he owns in downtown Scranton. (And here I was pissed off about my Comcast bill. I’m definitely counting my blessings now.)

Anyways, here’s what we know:

  1. Basalyga bought a parking garage in September 2016.

  2. The garage was a tax-exempt property when it was purchased.

  3. The Lackawanna County tax assessor’s office admittedly allowed the privately owned parking garage to remain tax-exempt since 2017.

  4. When a Scranton resident complained at a city council meeting earlier this month about the garage remaining tax-exempt, the tax assessor’s office decided to change the garage’s classification from exempt to taxable.

  5. Even though the garage was just changed from a tax-exempt property to a taxable property less than two weeks ago, a bill for 2017 and 2018 was sent, including late fees, so high that it could afford to buy all 402 Scranton High Class of 2018 graduates three pairs of Yeezys and still have money left over.

Now that sounds like a foolishly large amount of taxes for less than a year and a half — unless the city knows something about the property that no-one else knows, like Pablo Escobar stashing cocaine between layers of bricks in the garage and giving the property assessment an immoderate value. I could understand that. But without a shit-ton of cocaine from a notorious Colombian drug lord, I just don’t get it. Do you?

Better than the Weekend called the deputy director of assessments for Lackawanna County directly — his name is John Foley — seeking answers in hopes of understanding why the county is collecting taxes on a property for dates before the property became taxable. Foley angrily refused to comment on the matter. However, when I called pretending to be a student at Lackawanna College working on a paper for my summer class, I uncovered a more candid response from the woman who answered the phone. She claimed the taxes were billed due to an oversight and identified it as the tax assessor office’s fault.

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It gets worse. Apparently, the Lackawanna County tax assessor’s office has a history with oversights. Better than the Weekend exclusively spoke with a woman whose property was carelessly sold in a sheriff’s sale due to an oversight — even though she paid her taxes.

Jamie Constantine, who owns The Velvet Elvis vintage shop in Scranton, also co-owns Spring Hills Farm in Dalton. She says she was taken aback when a man approached her property a few years ago claiming he needed access to the land because he just purchased it from a sheriff’s sale. It turned out the Lackawanna County assessor’s office sold a portion of the land because of an oversight in filing their paid taxes.

“It cost more than $5,000 in legal fees to get it taken care of even though we were paying our taxes the entire time,” Constantine said.

That’s hard-earned money the owners of Spring Hills Farm never saw again.

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That right there is proof Scranton’s government retains the kind of self-sabotage frat boys usually grow out of. However, unlike light beer and cheap handles of vodka, the power that comes from being an elected official is an intoxicating feeling these Peter Pans in positions of power can’t seem to detach from as the years pass by, their hairlines recede and problems grow bigger and bigger.

In a report by Eyewitness News, Foley said his office decided to “roll the dice” when sending Basalyga a bill for nearly $255k. Is it just me, or should someone in that kind of position speak more assuredly on behalf of sending a bill for the price of a small yacht and not like someone who just had to sign himself out of Mohegan Sun?

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If the tax assessor’s office decided to change the tax classification of John Basalyga’s garage moving forward, that’s fine. Scranton’s financial state is in undeniable peril. No property should be exempt from taxes right now. Yet, somehow, an astonishing 33 percent of the properties in Scranton are exempt from paying taxes, largely placing the burden on homeowners struggling to keep a roof over their head. No city should have one-third of its property exempt from taxes.

Whoever allowed that to happen deserves diarrhea so messy that they have to take a shower after. Imagine how much it would help if the mayor grew a backbone and pushed for every property to be taxable for just the next decade. It seems, however, the mayor wants to be in office so he can cut ribbons and practice his Rosetta Stone on the Bar Pazzo menu.

If you’re a church, think about this: What would Jesus do? Would he not pay taxes if it meant families would struggle to keep their home? I don’t speak for the divine daddy J, but I doubt it.

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As for The University of Scranton, know this: They keep expanding and buying properties downtown that takes tax money away from the city and likely cause taxes to spike for hardworking families who spend their entire lives here, unlike the students. When the university bought a building on Courthouse Square in 2012, the city lost out on the taxes it provided. The previous owner of that building paid $15,590 in school taxes alone. Just that property’s taxes could help buy a lot of supplies for students that underpaid teachers are left responsible to cover. According to their website, The University of Scranton’s 2016-2017 school year revenue was more than $224 million while the city of Scranton’s revenue was less than half of that. If the university is raking in a quarter of a billion dollars in a single school year, and Scranton is struggling, they could manage to allocate some of that to pay taxes for a few years to help the city out.

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Perhaps this is the biggest question: If 33 percent of properties in Scranton aren’t being taxed, why is the city attacking John Basalyga and his parking garage? Basalyga is one of, if not the, biggest investors in Scranton right now. He invested millions into saving the mall and transforming it into a marketplace. Basalyga has a vision for this city and is actually taking action to try to build it up. What message does this send someone interested in bringing a business here — that Scranton grasps at straws when it needs money and attacks people they think can foot a bill? Of all the property owners you could attack, you decide to go after one of the few people who would invest large sums of money into saving the city? That’s an abuse of power. That’s like slapping your wife across the face and then expecting her to make you dinner and iron your clothes for the next workday.  Or, maybe it’s just like Scranton politics.

Perhaps a positive takeaway here is that people are being heard at city council meetings. Hopefully people will go and encourage Scranton to roll the dice in the right direction and ask for John Foley’s resignation. His leadership is clearly ineffective. His office’s oversights are costing the city seemingly due taxes and residents legal fees to prove they paid taxes. It would be great if people would encourage council to not use taxpayer money to fight Basalyga’s likely appeal and put more effort into noticeably slimming the percentage of tax-exempt properties in the Electric City.

And before Scranton politicians and tax collectors fall asleep at night, which I don’t know how many of them (not all) do with a clear conscience, they should ask themselves this: What would Michael Scott have to say? Like Jesus, I don’t speak for Michael Scott, but I imagine he’d probably say something like:

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20 Questions with Vinny from ‘Jersey Shore Family Vacation’

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Jersey Shore Family Vacation proved to be the best thing to happen to MTV since teen pregnancy. The reality reboot juiced up the ratings for the network with the highest cable TV premiere in six years. Yeah, buddy!

Now, Pauly, Mike, Ronnie, Snooki, Jwoww, Deena and Vinny are filming a second season of the show in Vegas. But first, the keto guido himself, Vinny Guadagnino, played a game of 20 questions with Better than the Weekend.

You were 21 when you first started filming Jersey Shore. Now you’re 30. What would 30-year-old Vinny go back and tell 21-year-old Vinny? Stop wearing all those bedazzled ugly T-Shirts. Ed Hardy. They had to go. I probably wish I would have been on the same diet I’m on now — the Keto diet — back then. And all the times I wish I would have went home back then, I would say that even when it gets tough, you can still get through it.

Was there any hesitation to reunite for Jersey Shore Family VacationThere was no hesitation at all. We’re the ones who manifested it into existence. We were in a group chat and we were saying we should do a show. Then we had our executive producer joining in and ultimately making it happen.

Photo Courtesy MTV

What should every guy try at least once in his life? A threesome.

When you’re smushing… lights on or lights off? Lights on. I’m a visual person.

What do you look for in a girl? I look for chemistry. I like it to be easy. Not in a sleazy way. I just like when we’re connected and on the same page and nothing has to be said and we just know what the other person is thinking.

What are your deal breakers in a relationship? Smoking is pretty bad. But today, it’s so rare to see a girl smoking. When you see a girl smoking it’s like, ‘Oooh, she’s bad. Who hurt you?’

You’re recently single. Are you on any dating apps? I have an old profile on Tinder. Maybe it’s still there, but I’m not on there. There’s a celebrity dating app for celebrities I tried to get on, but they turned me down from joining.

If you were elected president, what is the first thing you’d do? Cut taxes.

You made headlines for schooling President Trump on climate change. What would Trump’s Jersey Shore name be? DJT.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? Maybe that I’m an artist and I draw.

Which MTV show should be rebooted next? Rock N’ Jock. It was on in the 90s and had celebrities play sports against professional athletes.

Was it awkward going into the house with Snooki after being the only roommate who wasn’t invited to her wedding? Me and her are fine. Me and Nicole had a one-night stand in the Jersey Shore house when we were 22 years old — eight years ago. There was never any feelings or a relationship. The awkward part is not knowing how the production will spin our relationship. If I’m sitting next to Nicole, a reality show could spin that clip. That’s what made things awkward with us — not knowing how our interactions would look at the end of the day. That’s where a lot of Nicole’s concerns and reactions came from.

Jersey Shore Family Vacation is renewed for a second season. Since you’re down one roommate with Sammi not returning, which celebrity do you think would make a better roommate — Stormy Daniels or Monica Lewinsky? Stormy Daniels. She’s a porn star.

Photo Courtesy MTV

What’s the best advice you ever received? I read a lot of self-help books. I don’t know if it’s something I read, or something someone actually told me, but I like the saying ‘Not everything in life is an emergency.’ I think we run around and get hung up over things that stress us out more than they should. Sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and realize not everything is an emergency. We’re floating in a rock in outer space in the middle of an infinite universe. Our problems are a lot smaller than we realize and sometimes need to chill the fuck out.

What are you passionate about? Nutrition and health.

What celebrity do you think is overhyped? Cardi B. I will say Cardi B is talented. She’s funny. She has a huge personality. I get why people love her. However, I will say Bodak Yellow was pretty much identical to a Kodak Black song. Without that song she wouldn’t be who she is today. That’s all I’ll say about that.

What celebrity do you think doesn’t get enough credit? Donald Glover. He does standup. He does improv. He’s an actor. He’s a singer. He’s a rapper. He wings Grammys. He wins Emmys. He obviously gets credit because he wins awards, but his name isn’t on the top of everyone’s tongues the way it should be. He goes by two different names — Donald Glover and Childish Gambino — and they’re both talented enough to stand out on their own.

What is one Keto meal I need to try? If you go to the store and you find some smoked salmon, sugar free, almost like lox, take that and you kind of make that your little wrap or burrito. Then you put inside of it some cream cheese, avocado, arugula, and then you wrap up the salmon and have this smoked salmon wrap. Then you dip it in some black truffle oil. It’s amazing.

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What’s next on your career to-do list? Being on a scripted comedy series would be a dream come true. I love making people laugh. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm or New Girl or It’s Always Sunny.

Are you a weekend warrior or a weekday warrior? I like the middle of the week better than the weekend. A Monday or a Tuesday night, when it’s more industry night or the locals, is much more fun to me than when all the crazy people are out on the weekend. The people who are out during the week all want to be there. It’s easy to be dragged out by your friends because it’s a Friday or Saturday. A Monday party is definitely better than the weekend.

Photo Courtesy MTV

Season 1 of Jersey Shore Family Vacation can be streamed on mtv.com.

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Scranton Coach Accused of Bullying Opens Up, Says Parents May Be Seeking Revenge

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What seemingly started as a favor for a friend became an anti-bullying statement impetuously propagated around the region. Kathy Welby White shared a video April 27 on Facebook with a captioned slide of notes alleging a Scranton, Pennsylvania, high school baseball coach and gym teacher, George “Skip” Roskos, is a racist bully who picks on kids in Special Ed. Now suspended from coaching as his school district investigates, Roskos opened up to Better than the Weekend in a new interview.

I have shared this for a freind-YOU DID THIS SCRANTON SCHOOL DISTRICT!!!!! YOU WERE AWARE AND I HAVE PROOF!!! YOU LET THIS MAN HURT WAY WAY TOO MANY CHILDREN!!!! STOP THE HURT!!!!!! #stopthebullyatwshs

Posted by Kathy Welby White on Friday, April 27, 2018

The video claims to be anonymously produced by a student at West Scranton High who intensely fears Roskos and the influence it would have on the rest of their school experience if their identity was known. But there may be more to this story. Roskos says he knows the woman who posted the video. He identified her as the mom of a student he cut from his baseball team.

The court of public opinion weighed in as the video was watched roughly 40,000 times. Ghosts of Coach Roskos past have been creeping up on him over social media like a porn star who slept with a president.

Similar to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ bulldog demeanor in a White House press briefing, some are blazing forward and going to bat in defense of the coach. 

 

The claims show a lot at stake. Either a child’s welfare is in jeopardy by a racist bully abusing their power or a coach with an unhinged enemy is at risk of losing their job and having their reputation ravaged by the trolls of Facebook.

Either way, everyone seems to be dropping the ball on this.

While Roskos is suspended from coaching duties, West Scranton High is still allowing him to teach gym class at the school. Shame on school officials for allowing someone who is being investigated for bullying students and possibly making racist remarks to even be around the kids on school property until the investigation is complete.

Rosemary Boland, president of the Scranton Federation of Teachers, told a Scranton newspaper she doesn’t give the video much credence since it was made anonymously. If a student fears the consequences of holding an educator accountable for abusing their power, and wants to remain anonymous out of terror, they should have the right to have their claims taken seriously during an investigation. Shame on her for publicly abandoning the welfare of a child and not stepping down from her position once her feelings were reported by the news.

A Scranton newspaper reported the story and quoted the coach only twice in the article, one quote being: “False, false, false,” on his response to the allegations. That’s elementary reporting that shouldn’t even be accepted by an intern. The community deserves better reporting. The taxpayers funding the educators salaries deserve more thought-out questions to be asked that result in more answers.

Countless people are ripping Roskos a new asshole online. If you’re going to defend a child for being bullied and hold the accused accountable, don’t be a bully and make fun of someone’s weight and alleged fast food obsession. Demand action. Encourage the student to come forward and show them you’ll have their back. Unless a victim comes forward, the claims are just rumors.  Should rumors on social media have the power to ruin someone’s life? If that’s the case, you can say anything you want about someone you don’t like and ruin their life. That’s just fucked up.

Better than the Weekend reached out to both Kathy Welby White and Coach Roskos to further share their stories. Roskos is the only one who agreed to be interviewed. This is what he had to say:

What do you most enjoy about coaching? The interactions and relationships you can develop with teenage players while also having the opportunity to be competitive in a game that’s been part of my life basically since I was born. 

The video was posted by Kathy Welby White. Do do you know her? Yes. Mrs. White’s son tried out for our team a few years ago and he was not selected. I believe he graduated from West Scranton High School in 2014. 

Have you experienced retaliation from a student or parent when having to cut someone from the team in the past? Several times. This example here with the recent Facebook video. In the video, the creator of it, if the creator is being honest, he said he played from T-Ball through junior varsity. I guess my assumption is the video is made by someone who wasn’t selected for the varsity team so he chose to make this video. Or it’s possible it could be parents of a student who may have been cut. Parents usually react more strongly than the young men. 

After the video surfaced, did you take a moment to self-reflect and think, ‘Hey, maybe I went too far? Maybe I hurt a kids feelings and made them feel uncomfortable without realizing’? I do that type of self-reflection all the time with students in my classes and students on our teams. 

I’m specifically asking about when you saw this video. Did you self-reflect on your actions or did you instantly discredit the allegations? I probably did both. I know it’s false, but I also thought through some past interactions and also talked to the people who are closest to me on a daily basis.

You’ve described your coaching style as being ‘direct.’ What is an example of something you say in your direct coaching style to motivate your team? That we need to be better. That we need to look at different ways to be more competitive. 

Do you tell students they need to be better calmly or aggressively? I’m always calm.

Does a calm tone really motivate kids to win a game? Do my tones change if we’re in a game or at a practice? Definitely. 

Have you ever called them pussies? No.

Did ever tell an athlete they should be fast because of the color of their skin? No.

Do you think today’s youth is too sensitive? I actually think kids, for the most part, are the same in 2018 as they were when I started coaching in 1996. I think kids wants to be challenged and want to be successful. I think parents have changed a great deal. Social media is a big part of that. Twenty-two years ago, if a coach told somebody at practice something they didn’t like, they’d go home and blow off a little steam to their parents. If their parents wanted to blow off steam to another parent, they’d have to call them on the phone. That person would have to be home to answer and then they’d have a discussion. Now someone can post something on Facebook, and tens of thousands of people can see it in minutes and it spreads a lot more quickly. 

How has the attention impacted you? It’s hurtful to see that people have written negative things about me; about members of my family. 

Have you cried? No.

Do you think you’re approachable to a student who may feel bullied in school? Yeah. I’ve been confided in dozens of times from students in my class to players on the team. 

Being a teacher and coach in the digital age, when students have their phones with them and can express their feelings toward you for the world to see on social media, does that make your job more challenging? I’ve never thought about that. I just haven’t.

Do you think it’s appropriate for a coach to yell at an athlete to motivate them? Sure.

Do you think it’s appropriate for a coach to tell an athlete they aren’t good enough and could be better? Depends on the situation, but usually, yes. 

Has your behavior ever negatively impacted your coaching career? All my interactions are working toward a place of positivity with the team toward a common goal of developing competitive young men and trying to win games.

Yes or no, has your behavior ever impacted your coaching career? No.

Can you explain this picture circulating on Facebook?  

Facebook

Roskos: I held two positions with the American Legion. I was told I had to resign one or the other. It was left to me which position I wanted to keep and which position I wanted to resign. I told him I wouldn’t resign either, but he could choose if he wanted to basically fire me as regional director. And essentially, that’s what he did, but he also removed me from my coaching position.

Why did they remove you from both? If you read the letter, you’d see there’s no specific charge in there.

So, if you had resigned from one of the positions, you wouldn’t have that cease and desist notice? Yes. That’s what I was told in advance of getting that letter. 

Is it hard for you to walk into school every day with your head up while it’s public that you’re being investigated for allegedly bullying a student and making racist remarks? It doesn’t affect me from doing my job because I’m a professional. One of the things I, and other high school coaches, often teach our kids is that regardless of what goes wrong we have to bounce back and still do our job. 

The invitation for Kathy Welby White to share her side of the story still stands.

To the student who made these claims: You’re invited to share your story and be acknowledged.

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