Education

Morro Bay coach used ‘hate speech,’ parent says, as gay rights groups call for suspension

Head coach David Kelley leads a practice at Morro Bay High School football in 2015. He was removed from the job after using language insensitive to the LGBTQ community on Oct. 24.
Head coach David Kelley leads a practice at Morro Bay High School football in 2015. He was removed from the job after using language insensitive to the LGBTQ community on Oct. 24. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The derogatory language that a former Morro Bay High football coach used toward a junior varsity player was more offensive than what players told The Tribune, according to a parent whose son was a firsthand witness.

And a coalition of gay rights advocacy groups has written the San Luis Coastal school district a letter, expressing concerns that David Kelley, who was fired as a football coach, is still a teacher and that his hurtful words only have been partially revealed.

Julia Valentine, a parent of a player on the team, said her son told her was 10 feet away from Kelley in the locker room when he told a player on the JV football team, “Why are you looking at me like a gay homosexual mother------?”

That differs from language that multiple players on the team previously told The Tribune that their former coach used when he addressed the player.

Rocky Brebes — a senior on the team who said, “I love Coach Kelley, and so does every single person on our varsity team” — said that the words he heard were, “‘Stop looking at me like a homosexual and get the (expletive) to practice.”

Kelley was fired from his position after the Oct. 24 incident and was replaced by the athletic director for the team’s last game on Oct. 26, according to San Luis Coastal school district officials.

The aftermath has set off a frenzy of social media comments and debate around Kelley, many of whose players support him as a person and coach, saying he cares about players and his role as a mentor.

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But the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA), in coordination with 12 other groups, referred to Kelley’s comments as “homophobic.”

Kelley didn’t respond to Tribune requests for comment by phone or email about the incident with the JV player, who Valentine said was a European exchange student.

But Valentine said that she’s concerned that “hate speech” has been minimized. Valentine was in attendance when Kelley told players on the team and a group of parents that he was fired for his poor performance after a 1-8 record this season and three prior losing seasons.

“That sends the wrong message,” Valentine said. “Given that about 10 percent of the population is gay, it sends the message to potentially six players on the team that they’re less than their peers and to 54 players that they’re more than their peers.”

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Morro Bay High School’s former head football coach David Kelley at practice. tgibson@thetribunenews.com Travis Gibson

Valentine said that she even had a conversation with the European student, telling him that Kelley’s words were not acceptable.

“I spoke to him briefly after the parent meeting,” Valentine said. “I told him, ‘What he used with you is hate speech. And that’s never OK.’”

Eric Prater, the school district’s superintendent, said this week in an email that “I am extremely disappointed and troubled by this incident.”

“We’ve made significant and intentional efforts as a school district to create safer, more inclusive environments for students and staff — especially our more vulnerable populations.” Prater said. “This incident shows the distance we still must travel in order to accomplish our goals.”

A letter signed by GALA, local doctor Denise Taylor and 12 other groups — including Tranz Central Coast, R.A.CE. Matters SLO, Five Cities Diversity Coalition, and Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools — said “anecdotal information evidence that Coach Kelley was a compassionate person who took a vested interest in his players does not negate behavior that demonstrates to LGBTQ+ students that they are valued less than their heterosexual peers.

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Morro Bay High School head football coach David Kelley. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“As a form of bullying, homophobia is damaging to the mental health and future success of all students who experience or witness it, not simply those who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum,” they wrote. “Homophobic conduct paves the way for hate speech of all forms.”

The letter expressed concern that Kelley is still teaching and remains in contact with students.

“Could Mr. Kelley be suspended until a thorough investigation is made into his words and action, beyond this one incident?” the groups wrote. “Further, we wonder out loud if this teacher-coach had used a racially charged word, would he still be allowed on campus?”

Christin Newlon, the district’s director of human resources, said Kelley is still teaching and will continue in that role. Newlon said Kelley hasn’t shown a pattern of intolerant behavior or comments.

“The district has addressed this as a personnel issue,” Newlon said. “We don’t take it lightly, and we’ve handled the situation in a manner deemed appropriate.”

Newlon also emphasized a letter went out to every parent with a high school student and the district has had training sessions with employees.

Prater said in his email that Kelley apologized to the students and impacted families Monday.

“That is the beginning, I imagine, of Mr. Kelley’s genuine efforts to reconcile his actions with the MBHS community,” Prater said. “The impact and loss of trust between adults and the student body will be felt well beyond the apology. We intend to address this thoroughly and with honesty.”

Prater added that students can express concerns about bullying and harassment through the district’s “Report a Concern” link on all school sites and district websites.

“We already know our students, parents, and staff utilize this communication structure regularly,” Prater said. “We are responsive and document all reported concerns.”

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