As high school tennis teams prepare for this weekend’s state championships, some parents are questioning why administrators at Valley High School in West Des Moines didn’t do more this year to discipline a player accused of felony sex abuse.
Nicholas J. Fifield — the son of Tigers tennis coach Jay Fifield — was charged in December with third-degree sex abuse of a person “suffering from a mental defect or incapacity, which precludes giving consent,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Polk County.
Parents say the 18-year-old from Windsor Heights was suspended for one meet at the start of the season after the charge was filed. Fifield will play doubles in the Class 2A state tennis tournament this weekend at Veterans Memorial Tennis Center in Cedar Rapids.
Fifield’s attorney, Sean Spellman, said he cannot comment on the case, other than to say his client will be pleading not guilty, and Spellman believes the school district followed the right procedures.
Parent Steve O’Meara, who asked the Reader’s Watchdog to investigate, disagrees.
“Anybody who has a daughter should be appalled by this,” he said. “Our public universities suspend and remove such athletes from teams and competition. While even this single situation is appalling, it begs the question: How many other times have situations like this occurred within the Valley athletics department?”
O’Meara also asked whether similar discipline has been meted out at other Iowa high schools for felony sex abuse.
The query comes as a number of U.S. colleges are doing more to emphasize stiffer punishment, including expulsion, as a penalty for sex abuse after research has shown a pattern of little or no disciplinary action at many schools.
At Iowa’s secondary schools, discipline for all students is decided by principals under conduct policies adopted by local school boards. Under an important Iowa Supreme Court decision, local school boards are prohibited from delegating that authority.
But board members may be given little or no training or guidance on what discipline is appropriate for sexual assault, the Watchdog found.
Staci Hupp, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, said she was unaware of any guidance that her agency provides school boards.
Under West Des Moines’ current student conduct code, the minimum penalty for a student accused of felony sex abuse is 10 percent of the activity’s schedule, or at least one match or game. The maximum is to suspend the student from activities indefinitely.
Dr. Vicky Poole, a longtime principal at Valley who now heads the school board, said the board does not review discipline meted out to individual students unless a long-term suspension or expulsion is being suggested.
Only Brad Rose, the athletic director for all West Des Moines schools, has the authority to review a principal’s decision to punish a student athlete, she said.
Poole said she thought the school’s discipline policy “should be equitable for everyone.”
School officials, including Rose, declined to be interviewed about the discipline chosen under the school’s conduct code.
“Because of student privacy laws, we are not able to divulge information that is considered confidential,” spokeswoman Elaine Watkins-Miller said.
When asked how other felony sex abuse allegations have been handled by the school in the last five years, the administration said it was not aware of any other cases.
Victim had disabilities
According to a Windsor Heights police report, Fifield and the victim, whom the Register is not naming because of the nature of the case, met through an online dating website.
The separate criminal complaint filed in Polk County says Fifield had permission from the 18-year-old woman’s parents and staff at a Des Moines group home to take her to the movies on Dec. 5. While at the group home, Fifield questioned a staff member about why she was living there.
“The defendant was told by a staff member that the victim needed assistance with making the right decision about things,” the criminal complaint said.
“The victim has a clinical diagnosis of mildly mentally defectiveness, autism, alcohol-drug related birth defect syndrome, post-traumatic stress, dissociative identity disorder, major depressive disorder with brief reactive psychotic episodes” and a language disorder that makes communication difficult, according to the complaint.
Instead of going to the movies, Fifield took the young woman to his house. The two kissed and eventually, he had her perform sex acts described in the police report as “forcible fondling.” The victim said she told Fifield “no” on several occasions. Then Fifield drove her to Valley Junction, where they met her mother, the report says. The woman was taken to a medical facility.
Fifield’s arraignment in adult court, where he will formally enter a not guilty plea, has been postponed at least six months until June 1. That’s after the state tennis tournament beginning Saturday and Valley’s graduation on Sunday.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said the delay has nothing to do with the fact that Fifield is a graduating senior.
“There are some things that needed to be looked at,” Sarcone said. “Nobody is holding it up.”
Fifield’s attorney has filed a motion to have the case transferred from adult to juvenile court.
Sarcone said his office will be resisting that motion.
The judge will hear what services are available for Fifield in the adult and juvenile corrections systems, and then make a decision.
Is suspension “appropriate?”
Watkins-Miller said the fact that a student’s criminal case has not been resolved could have bearing on the district’s discipline.
But the Iowa Supreme Court has said school authorities need not require violation of criminal law for a school conduct code infraction to occur.
“To some extent at least, school authorities may base disciplinary measures on immoral acts or on acts definitely contrary to current mores,” the court said in Bunker v. Iowa High School Athletic Association.
In Des Moines schools, a student found guilty of a felony in court or under “the reasonable belief of the principal” can be expelled or sent to an alternative education program.
O’Meara, who with his wife, Michelle, has a sophomore son on Valley’s tennis team, says Fifield’s one-meet suspension for sexual misconduct is comparable to what a student might receive for underage drinking.
“I know of a student suspended for almost two weeks and sent to an alternative school for bringing alcohol on a (school-related) trip,” he said.
O’Meara and his wife complained during tennis season to Superintendent Lisa Remy and school board members, expressing concerns about Fifield’s one-meet suspension and other complaints about Jay Fifield’s coaching.
“While an arrest is far from a conviction, we would have thought such conduct would have warranted more,” they wrote.
Kirk Neustrom, who also has a son on the team, says he, too, complained to Valley’s principal, the athletic director, the superintendent and board members about the coach and the discipline Nicholas Fifield received.
Neustrom says his son was suspended for two meets by Coach Fifield for essentially questioning the lineup he used in an important meet.
When Neustrom’s son, Brett, tried to attend the second of those two meets to support the tennis team, he says, the coach ordered the suspended player to leave.
“They were playing No. 1 Iowa City West, and he said my son couldn’t be there,” Neustrom said.
The school’s conduct code does not address whether students suspended from activities can show up in the stands.
Violations of the school’s conduct code come via self-reporting by students and parents, police, staff, sponsors or other means. The current policy treats misdemeanor and felony reports the same and calls for the student to be “suspended from activities indefinitely, unless the administration reinstates the student’s eligibility.”
Students have a right to appeal to the school principal within two days. A student-faculty appeal panel reviews the case within five school days.
Alan Beste, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, said he’s not aware of any reporting of sexual assaults involving student athletes at Iowa high schools or any recommendations on what discipline is appropriate.
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