Hit hard by student sex assault allegations in March, Venice High School sports programs are teaching that respect for women is part of the game
Story by Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker
Kids removed from class in handcuffs. Television news crews staked out in front of campus. Headlines from L.A. to New York to London.
Allegations that as many as 14 teenage boys, some of them football or basketball players, had repeatedly coerced and sexually assaulted two female classmates shook the very foundations of Venice High School in March.
Though prosecutors ultimately declined to press any charges, soul-searching about what went wrong — and what could be done to keep anything like it from ever happening again — continued among parents and educators.
That included veteran Venice High School head football coach Angelo Gasca, who promptly gathered his team for a locker room heart-to-heart.
“I addressed the team and we talked about our responsibility to follow the rules — to respect girls and everybody’s right to say no. … I asked the team, ‘What if that was your sister or your mother or someone else who you cared about being victimized?’” Gasca recalled.
During a campus community meeting that followed the crisis, Venice High School alumnus Miguel Perez, who played football under Gasca’s leadership, approached administrators with a game plan to teach sexual violence prevention as part of the school’s storied athletics programs. Six months later, they’re putting that plan into action.
While preparing his varsity Gondoliers for Friday night’s season opener vs. the Granada Hills Highlanders, Gasca is also implementing the first week of “Coaching Boys into Men,” a curriculum designed to help coaches talk to their players about showing verbal and physical respect for others — especially women.
Weekly discussion topics include preventing disrespectful behavior toward women and girls both in person and online, understanding sexual consent, communicating personal boundaries, leaving aggression on the field and promoting gender equality. The lessons culminate in a coach-and-player pledge to “take a stand against relationship abuse” and “publicly denounce violence against women and girls.”
Gasca, who played football at Venice High from 1975 to 1978 and has coached the team for 20 years, says the program is a good fit for the team.
“It’s not that far off from what we tell our guys on a daily basis, but now it’s in the form of an actual curriculum,” Gasca said. “Every football coach is going to spend time talking about discipline, behavior, responsibility and accountability. I think ‘Coaching Boys Into Men’ gives you a clearer, more structured format.”
Developed by San Francisco-based nonprofit Futures Without Violence and brought to L.A. through the Ocean Park Community Center, “Coaching Boys into Men” is being piloted with the football team but will be integrated into every VHS boys sports program this year, Perez said. From there he hopes to take the program to other area schools.
“This is a tool to share information and ask questions that are open-ended so that the players can discuss it and learn from each other, because coach can’t be everywhere,” Perez said.
Perez also helps run the Ocean Park Community Center’s “Brothers Respecting Others” program, which trains adults who interact with kids how to model and advocate for healthy gender dynamics.
Training Venice High school athletics faculty to implement “Coaching Boys into Men” happened quietly and without fanfare earlier this month, but the program is already generating positive reactions in and around campus.
“It’s one of the best possible results that could have happened,” said Linda Solieb, whose daughter is a junior at Venice High School. “What happened here was not unique to our school, but this is one of the few times I know of that a school has not buried its head in the sand and has acknowledged what happened.”
“I think there’s been a deficit in these kinds of programs in high schools. To have these types of proactive discussions is great,” said Robin Rudisill, a Venice Neighborhood Council member whose daughter graduated from Venice High this spring.
David Kent, father of two Venice High basketball players and president of the Friends of the Venice Magnet fundraising group, said he’s heard good things about the program from his sons’ coach.
“My wife and I, as well as many of the parents that we know at the high school, have raised our boys to be strong and respectful young men and to be good citizens. But sometimes hearing the same message from someone that a student looks up to and respects, like a coach or teacher, can be equally or more impactful, and it’s a message they can never hear enough, ” Kent said.
LAUSD Board of Education President Steve Zimmer, whose district includes Venice High School, is also supportive.
“Having coaches and other responsible adults involved with the curriculum could really be a game-changer for the young men at Venice High School. It’s certainly a good start,” Zimmer said.
During a locker-room conversation before Monday’s practice, Gasca reflected on the student sexual assault allegations earlier this year and how that situation points up the need to support student participation in athletics as an opportunity for teachable moments.
“I certainly was disappointed that it happened at our school. In terms of being a team and a school, it definitely hurt us because a couple of guys on the football team were involved. [But] there were also students who were not athletes, so it’s hard for me to look at it as a sport-related issue. I look at it more as people making bad decisions,” Gasca said.
“On this team, there’s incredible character. There are probably seven or eight guys who are getting straight As, and they will buy into [‘Coaching Boys into Men’]. We’re very serious about this program,” he said.
Growing up in the much rougher Venice of the 1970s, Gasca faced tremendous pressure to join a gang but found a better path through football.
“I’ve seen how people can turn themselves around by being part of the team. I was one of those people. I’ve also seen how people who don’t stick to it can do irreparable damage to themselves and their futures. Part of the reason why I want to be at Venice High is because this is my community. I think of how my coaches and teachers inspired me and taught me things that unfortunately some of my friends didn’t take advantage of,” he said.
“Everyone’s first inclination when a kid gets in trouble is to take his sport away, like it was a phone,” he said. “Sports might be the one saving grace for that individual. It might be the one thing that makes him redeemable.”