Lawsuit claiming misconduct with athlete raises questions about coach's resignation

Photo: Lily Altavena, Arizona Republic

Coach John Shea’s resignation was one of dozens approved during a Mesa Public Schools board meeting in March 2017.

Next to his name, Shea’s reason for leaving is listed as “personal.”

But the reasons for the coach’s departure appear far more complex than the one-word explanation.

Behind his resignation, a federal lawsuit claims, is the thorny tale of a Skyline High School track coach and a teenage girl tangled in a yearslong attachment that often crossed the line into sexual innuendo.

Shea was also a history, physical education teacher and a football coach. District officials placed him on leave in early 2017 when learning of the accusations. A few months later, Shea resigned and voluntarily surrendered his teaching certificate.

The district reported the claims against Shea to Mesa police, which investigated and closed the case in February 2017, citing “no evidence of criminal sexual conduct with a minor.”

Mesa Public Schools, Shea, the district’s school board and other district employees are named as defendants in the lawsuit, filed this March in U.S. District Court for Arizona.

The lawsuit accuses Shea of luring the teen into a relationship that would become an “unending nightmare” dominated by the coach’s advances and torment from other students when they caught wind of the inappropriate bond.

The lawsuit further contends that other coaches were aware of the allegations, which they “swept under the rug” in an attempt to shield the school’s football program. And, it claims, when the district finally acted, officials allowed Shea to resign quietly.

The teen’s mother attempted to point out that Shea was resigning to avoid termination during the March 2017 school board meeting.

“The documents speak for themselves, and the program that’s run there put sports and athletics above student safety,” Sean Woods, the attorney representing the teen’s mother, said.

Shea, contacted at his home Monday, declined to comment.

In court filings, Shea’s attorneys and the school district’s attorneys deny the allegations.

Helen Hollands, district spokeswoman, said in a statement, “In February 2017, Skyline High School administration contacted Mesa Police Department when it learned of possible inappropriate behavior between John Shea and a student. Shea was immediately placed on administrative leave.”

A coach and student relationship

The teen girl at the center of the case began her freshman year at Skyline in 2013. Shea coached her in track. They became friendly while he trained her, according to the lawsuit.

“Shea exercised control over (the teen) by telling her that only he could get her into college with an athletic scholarship,” the lawsuit reads.

During the teen’s junior year, Shea started taking her to school in the morning and dropping her off at home in the afternoons, according to court documents. She started babysitting his children. He encouraged her to work out in a sports bra, violating school policy, and he started “putting his hands on her” during workouts, the lawsuit contends.

The behavior alarmed Shea’s fellow coaches in the school’s athletic program, Cathy Underwood and Sara Nixon, according to the lawsuit. Both alerted Greg Schultz, the school’s athletic director, and Holly Williams, an assistant superintendent in the district, sometime during the teen’s sophomore or junior year,  the lawsuit states.

Nixon declined to comment. Williams, Schultz and Underwood could not be immediately reached for a response.

According to the lawsuit, school officials ignored those alarm bells.

Arizona law mandates that teachers suspicious of child abuse or neglect must report it to a state hotline or to law enforcement. Failure to do so could mean possible criminal charges.

The relationship between Shea and the student continued to escalate, the lawsuit alleges. It said Shea discovered the teen lacked a father figure and took advantage of that fact. He started texting her, telling her that he loved her and soliciting partially nude photos.

During rides in his car, he held her hand, the lawsuit says.

In the text messages, he gave her nicknames: Sweet cheeks. Beautiful. Gorgeous girl.

“I can’t even explain the amount of levels that I love you by the way,” Shea wrote in a text message included in court records.

The text was one of several thousand in a torrent of messages police uncovered between Shea, 48, and the teen girl, detailed in a January 2017 incident report.

The lawsuit alleges that Shea’s advances got bolder as she grew closer to 18, the age of consent in Arizona. The lawsuit said he once persuaded her to meet him at the park after a night of drinking, caressing her inner thigh.

“(The teen) was nervous and extremely scared by this escalation of physicality, but felt she had to allow it to occur so as not to jeopardize her athletic scholarship potential,” the complaint reads.

Still suspicious, Nixon and Underwood saw the teen leaving a football game in Shea’s truck in September 2016, two months before she turned 18, the lawsuit said.

In November 2016, the girl’s senior year, she turned 18, and the coach kissed her, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 27, school officials went to the police.

Police investigate claims

Shea told police officers that he saw himself as a father figure to the teen, according to the police report.

The messages from Shea, detailed in the police report and court documents, range from the coach’s intent to buy the teen a Christmas gift to what the teen was wearing. On numerous occasions, he tells her that he loves her.

“The messages I saw on (redacted)’s phone did not seem to be the ones that a coach and student would send to each other,” a Mesa police detective said while interviewing Shea.

During the teen’s interview with police, Shea texted her, according to court documents. He told her to check her email, where she found a message from the coach with a picture of a school track shirt.

“(The teen) told the police that if she did not respond he would probably get suspicious,” the complaint reads.

Without evidence that Shea sexually crossed the line with the teen while she was under 18, police closed the case.

Detective Nik Rasheta, a Mesa police spokesman, said that although the case was closed, it could reopen with new evidence.

Shea, and the former coach’s attorneys, declined a request for comment.

A quiet resignation

With Shea on administrative leave, the teen felt like a “pariah” in the latter half of her senior year, according to a court document. The gossip and harassment from other students were described as endless. Skyline teachers lamented losing Shea in comments made when the girl was within earshot, the suit claims.

The teen’s mom sought accountability from the district, discussing Shea’s impending dismissal with Tom Pickrell, the district’s general counsel.

According to the court documents, the mother wanted Shea to be fired and his misdeeds publicly documented.

Instead, Pickrell contended that a resignation would be more efficient and save the district money. In a message written on district letterhead, Pickrell stated that the district would submit a statement of charges against Shea if he did not voluntary resign, the court document says. The coach chose to resign.

At the end of March 2017, the school board approved Shea’s resignation along with a laundry list of personnel requests.

The teen’s mom did not want Shea to leave quietly. At the March 28 school board meeting where the coach’s resignation was made official, she asked to speak.

“I would like it noted for the record he’s resigning in lieu of termination,” she said, in a video of the meeting. “The board agenda states that his resignation is for personal reasons, but that is not the case.”

The district’s attorney, Matthew Wright, said in an email that Mesa Public Schools does not comment on matters in litigation.

In August 2017, Shea voluntarily surrendered his educator certification, Arizona State Board of Education records show.

Protecting the football program?

The lawsuit asserts that the coaching staff, preoccupied with the success of Skyline’s football program, knowingly allowed Shea to sexually harass the teen.

“Shea and other coaches were allowed and encouraged to intimidate, belittle and harass teachers and staff members who made complaints,” the lawsuit reads.

Last season, playing in Division 6A, Skyline finished 6-5 overall and 4-1 in its section. According to MaxPreps, the team was ranked 25th in Arizona.

Police investigators interviewed Skyline head coach Angelo Paffumi over the phone.

He told investigators he was aware of concerns over the dress code for track students and emphasized that he had no authority over Shea, according to the report. Paffumi also told detectives that he gave Shea a ride from the police station after his interview, and Shea revealed that he was under investigation for improper contact with a student.

Paffumi told police he had no concerns over the teen’s relationship with Shea.

He did not respond to The Republic‘s requests for comment.

In a notice of claim, lawyers for the teen’s mother ask for $750,000 for the teen and $100,000 for her mother, seeking damages for pain and mental suffering.

The lawsuit initially was filed in Maricopa County Superior Court before being moved to federal court. It is in the discovery stage, which is due to end in February, court documents show.

Republic reporters Uriel J. Garcia and Katherine Fitzgerald contributed to this report.

For more, visit the Arizona Republic

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