Walking into the September 11 regular Sweetwater Union High School District board meeting, a large audience sporting baseball attire waited for the public comment section—an opportunity for community members to request to speak on topics with a submitted comment card. Speakers chosen spoke and then sat down. The period of time allotted for non-agenda items came and went, only allowing a few advocates the three minutes to give their piece.
About a dozen Bonita Vista High former baseball players and parents were at the board meeting with the intention of defending varsity head coach Vincent Gervais in response to publicized accusations of verbal and physical abuse. CBS News 8 reporting focused on the parent’s testimony, as sensitive personnel issues were discussed, barring reporters’ entry. Their coverage included interviews from dissatisfied parents, word from an unnamed SUHSD spokesperson and a concluding statement that they “were unable to reach Vincent Gervais” posing the concern there was a lack of effort from CBS to create balanced coverage.
“I wanted to convey as a parent that I’ve had four student athletes participate in the program. I wanted to tell the board my opinions of what was being portrayed by the news. All of the things I’ve seen [on the news] didn’t make sense with the things I’d seen over 10 years. My three boys started playing baseball for Vince in the eighth grade. I’ve got a daughter who played in the program and she’s on the USA [softball] team. I’m not just a normal dad saying things about Vince, I’m a dad who’s been around the program for a long time,” board meeting attendee and former BVH baseball parent John Flippen said.
A statement titled “The Bonita Vista High Administration and the Sweetwater Union High School District cover up actions of abusive head varsity baseball coach Vince Gervais” signed “Families of the Bonita Vista High School Program” was sent to the Board of Trustees and five media outlets in effort to express discontent with the two investigations conducted between May and July—outside of submitted complaints.
In said statement, parents questioned the genuine nature of what Del Rosario described as confidential conversations. Specifically, they questioned why the public had gained knowledge of the situation. CBS News 8 coverage was largely dependent on parent testimony, including a video from the closed-door meeting provided by an authorized attendee Dan Burow. Burow was unable to be contacted for comment regarding his concerns. His son declined to be interviewed as well.
In an interview with CBS News 8 reporter Abbie Alford, she mentioned due to the time constraints of daily news, she was unable to continue attempts to reach Gervais beyond that day. She mentions she contacted a number listed in a database LexisNexis used by news organizations between 4 and 10 p.m. before going live with the news segment. The number Alford says she called has not belonged to Gervais since December 2015.
“The number I had called no one had answered. No one answered that number. That was the only number that I had for Mr. Gervais,” Alford said.
In an interview with CBS News 8 executive director Tim O’Brien we were informed that the piece was treated as an issue of public safety and therefore had to be aired the same day. Additionally, O’Brien was not able to confirm if other sources were contacted in an effort to provide balanced reporting.
When questioned about his due diligence before publishing balanced coverage, O’Brien made it clear that a balanced article does not require the accused to respond to the story, in this case Gervais. Rather, if they had attempted to contact the individual but did not receive an answer, they would still publish the piece, as it is a matter of public service.
The suggested catalyst for parents to step forward with their concerns was an incident specifically mentioned in the CBS news segment. According to recounts described by parents, players and Gervais, Gervais attempted to get a player’s attention after they had missed signs resulting in a mistake by the runner, leading to him being thrown out of second base. Gervais did this by means of physical contact, however the extent of the force used is a point of dispute. The player in question declined to comment.
“I did apologize. The angle of apologizing was more about him being a prominent player on the team. I realized that if he’s missing signs, that’s my problem not his. That’s something we need to work on together. So I went to apologize for shaping it in a way that it was his fault on the field, and I asked ‘is this something we can work on because this can’t continue,’” Gervais said.
According to Murphy, this player and their parents were not concerned by the act, however it caused another parent to raise questions, leading them to seek others with similar concerns dating back as far as a decade back, at the start of Gervais’ employment as coach. During the first week of May, Murphy received about 10 letters from parents. These testimonies were first investigated by former principal Bettina Batista and former assistant principal Ronne Pietila-Wiggs.
“All those letters started coming to me and I started kicking that up through the chain of command because that is above my pay grade. I can’t make decisions like hiring and firing coaches,” Murphy said.
Letters and the statement from parents cited a pattern of abusive coaching styles and specifically named conduct during a game against rivals Eastlake High School. D. Burow described this same occurrence to CBS. Varsity pitcher Chris Andersen mentioned he was pitching against Eastlake High School where Eastlake was up 6-1 when an opposing player stole home. The following day BVH varsity baseball team played Eastlake a second time, using a different pitcher.
When asked if Gervais had explicitly told him to pitch at Eastlake player, Micah Pietila-Wiggs, the following day, Nathan Nankil said no.
“It was an accident. If I were to have purposefully hit him, I wouldn’t have pitched a curve ball, it would have been a fast-pitch”, Nankil said.
Other BVH varsity baseball players on the 2017 roster could not directly verify whether Gervais had instructed his player to act in such a manner; however, they defended this as the norm on their club teams.
“That is more of a professional baseball code of conduct where they like to say ‘police yourselves.’ If somebody disrespects you, then the next batter in professional baseball gets ‘beaned,’ you don’t aim for their head, you don’t try to kill the person, you try to hit them in the leg to say ‘hey, don’t try to show us up.’ It is definitely not something we do in high school. The umpires would not allow that: if that happened you [would be] thrown out of the game on the spot. We do not condone those things but it is part of the culture at higher levels,” Murphy said.
The Eastlake player being pitched at for this game was ELH baseball player Micah Pietila-Wiggs, son of former Assistant Principal Ronne-Pietila Wiggs and current Intervention Coordinator and TEAM tutoring advisor Steven Wiggs. According to S. Wiggs, the issue had been resolved. The Wiggs family continues to have a close relationship with Gervais and the pitcher, Nathan Nankil, who was supposedly instructed to pitch at their son.
S. Wiggs emphasized that Gervais had organized a college visit to University of Arizona for his son to demonstrate the nature of their friendship. When asked about this particular situation, Gervais stated he does not condone intentionally hitting players.
“I have a folder full of emails. I went to Mrs. Pietila because she was the one above me and explained the situation. We talked to coach Gervais about some of these things. We talked to Ms. Batista and the parents were not satisfied with our solution. In response, they got together over the summer and when the new principal came in, they hit him with all these complaints from last year the first day he came in,” Murphy said.
At this point, several interviews were conducted together before Del Rosario continued to independently contact past and present parents and players.
“When you get concerns, you have an obligation to look into them, to review them and to evaluate circumstances case by case, with the goal of improving. We want great athletic programs the way we want great performing arts programs, and great academic programs,” Del Rosario said.
In the second investigation, Del Rosario conducted interviews independent from the previous conclusion. Letters from parents brought up situations dating back as far as the beginning of his employment, however Murphy mentions that due to Gervais’ appointment to the position in 2006, there have been no notable complaints—outside of what Murphy describes as “typical” for coaches year by year.
“There were some concerns that current and former players and parents had submitted [letters] both to the school and to the district. As a new principal, I had the responsibility to review the concerns and conduct further interviews to gather the facts. What I felt was appropriate is that I work with Coach Gervais in establishing a clear expectation and standard for the culture of our program and expectations I have of all coaches. I’m going to be working very closely, along with Mr. Murphy and Mr. Alvarez, with Mr. Gervais,” Del Rosario said.
As a result of the investigations conducted, Gervais will remain coach on conditions of greater oversight. Del Rosario, Murphy and Assistant Principal Christopher Alvarez expect to work closely with Gervais to complete evaluations of the rest of the baseball coaching staff. This way, administrators are able to ensure the correct priorities are being applied to the program as a whole.
“Ed-code states that we have in loco parentis. While the students are here we fill the role of parents. I have alway taken the extra step and ask what would I want for my own children? What would be okay with me in terms of how they’re treated? It makes it much more real to analyze circumstances from that lens of a parent and expectations for how your own children should be treated,” Del Rosario said.
Some parents cited in the CBS piece were contacted and declined comment. Parent Pete Luna and resigned player Chris Luna declined to comment. Due to time constraints, Alvarez and another resigned player Roberto Duran could not be reached for comment.