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Tom Mix, Chris Murphy and Helmut Schmidt, Forum staff writers, Published February 06 2014

Fired coach stands by his text message; coaches, school officials say new ways of communicating mean new rules

FARGO – Joel Swanson stands by his actions four days after he lost his job as head baseball coach at Shanley High School because of a text message he sent players.

The text – sent to eight starting athletes on the team and assistant coach Luke Rustad – received a complaint from a parent and was deemed “threatening” by school administrators.

His contract wasn’t renewed.

Poor attendance at once-a-week, nonmandatory gym sessions prompted Swanson’s text.

He said Thursday that he would not change much about the text message if he could do it again.

“I look back and read what was sent out and maybe there are a couple of words I would not have used,” Swanson said. “If I did it over, I probably would not have used the word ‘pathetic,’ but other than that there is nothing in there I would change at all if I did it all over again.”

The incident highlights a thorny problem for coaches and teachers in this era of ultra-fast communication.

How do you get your message across to kids without potentially angering or insulting students or parents?

Barnesville, Minn., varsity football coach Bryan Strand said he rarely hears his son talk on his cellphone. He hears him tapping messages.

“My kid has a phone and it’s 98 percent text and Twitter,” he said.

Strand, who is also principal at Barnesville High School, said there are no district rules for communication between coaches and athletes via text messaging or social media.

“We just say make sure that it’s nothing that’s personal,” Strand said. “I don’t see anything wrong with (what the Shanley coach sent). You have an overzealous parent that obviously didn’t like that guy.”

Text for business

Jon Ammerman is in his first year coaching the Moorhead boys’ varsity hockey team. He only uses his cellphone to tell players he received their messages or to fill them in on scheduling changes.

“We’re big on face-to-face meetings on anything other than what times to meet,” Ammerman said. “You just assume everything is public knowledge. That goes with what I say to them in the locker room or via text.”

Hawley, Minn., varsity football coach Peder Naatz has been a head coach for 14 years. He prefers talking face to face, but will give his captains his cellphone number.

“If I really want to say something, I don’t want anything left to interpretation with the reader,” he said. “If you don’t say it with your voice, it can be taken a lot of ways with the reader.”

Strand said the rules are tougher for male coaches to communicate with female athletes.

“If I was texting girls that I was coaching, my wife would see it differently,” Strand said. “That’s the tough part of the whole thing. You could text, ‘Hey, are you doing OK?’ and a parent could get angry I’m texting their daughter, which I totally understand as an administrator. I’m glad I coach boys’ sports.”

For their part, students prefer to text.

“Texting is a great way of communicating,” said Keeghan Hurley, a senior cross country and track runner at Perham (Minn.) High School.

“I know that for some coaches it’s weird. In my relationship with (Perham coach) Jeff Morris, coming from Fergus Falls (Minn.) High School where I didn’t get talked to at all, it was a great change that he was able to text me and see what’s going on with me.”

Cody Dorow, a junior guard on Moorhead High’s varsity basketball team, says it’s a cellular world.

“I've been around (head basketball coach Corey Zimmerman) awhile, so it's just a way of communicating. For this generation, almost every kid has a cell phone, so the coaches adjust and that's their way of communicating with us.”

Pluses and minuses

The Moorhead and West Fargo school districts have technology policies.

Moorhead’s is extensive, with considerable attention paid to the behavior of staff online and on social networks.

West Fargo students and staff must read and sign a copy of the district’s technology policy yearly.

The Fargo School District doesn’t have a written social media policy but conducts annual sessions with coaches and teachers to discuss guidelines. Superintendent Jeff Schatz said a policy may be worked up in coming weeks.

“Ten years, ago, who would have thought about texting?” said Rob Kaspari, technology director for West Fargo.

It’s the impersonal nature of electronic communication, be it a text or a Facebook message that can affect a message. Without vocal or visual cues, messages can be easily misconstrued, he said.

“If you want to get a point across, that’s more of a meeting face to face. It’s more respectful,” Kaspari said.

In Moorhead, texting and social media are viewed as tools, interim Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Larson said.

But a program called Haiku is his district’s preferred way to have teachers work with students, Larson said.

Dean Haugo, activities director at Moorhead High School, said texting and social media are efficient ways to reach students. But in a conflict situation, they should be avoided.

“Keep it to face-to-face conversations,” he said.

In Fargo’s public schools, the digital world is embraced, with many students turning in homework electronically. Some classrooms are also flipped, with lessons studied in the evening online at home, and homework done in school, Schatz said.

But “in general, texting, Facebooking, shouldn’t be occurring if it’s not tied to classroom,” Schatz said.

Fargo Activities Director Todd Olson said setting boundaries is the key.

“You have to understand where those boundaries are and not cross those boundaries,” he said.

Players petitioning

Shanley baseball players have started a petition to reinstate Swanson as coach, but Shanley’s administration is acting quickly to name Swanson’s replacement.

Assistant coach Rustad confirmed Thursday that he has met with Shanley Activities Director Randy Nelson and has been offered the job. No contract has been finalized with the school.

“I have talked it over with Joel,” said Rustad, who teaches at Shanley. “He has been very supportive and wants me to take the job. I plan on accepting it, but it is with a heavy heart because Joel is one of my best friends.”

Swanson said he is not aware of any school policy that bans coaches from communicating with players via text messages and social media platforms.

“The only thing I have ever heard was Randy (Nelson) has talked to the coaches about being careful with it and making sure that you are being appropriate with the use of it that it is not something being sent to one specific player,” Swanson said. “If in doubt, attach him to it as well so he gets a copy of it in order to prevent issues from occurring.”

Nelson was not included in Swanson’s text.

Swanson said he has a rule that he doesn’t allow players to access his Facebook profile until they graduate.

Emails served as Swanson’s primary way of communicating with players, but he acknowledged sending text messages in the past to alert his players to a change in a game time or a rainout.

“I’m a very blunt, honest coach, and the parents have appreciated that,” Swanson said. “Everything I do is very black and white. I have always prided myself on never having a parent complain, because they know where I’m coming from all the time. There are no gray areas.”

Readers can reach Forum reporters

Readers can reach Forum reporters Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583, Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562, and Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548