LaPorte school heads knew, hushed Ashcraft case, e-mails show

E-mails reveal volleyball coach was forced to resign
2010-03-07T00:05:00Z LaPorte school heads knew, hushed Ashcraft case, e-mails showBy Christine Kraly - christine.kraly@nwi.com, (219) 662-5335 nwitimes.com

LaPorte Community School Corp. officials forced a volleyball coach to resign two years ago in the midst of apparent suspicion of his inappropriate relationship with a player.

The revelation is buried in thousands of pages of e-mails requested by The Times. The e-mails also reveal the school community's chatter surrounding the departure of Robert Ashcraft as assistant volleyball coach at LaPorte High School.

The Times reviewed hundreds of e-mails written in 2008 among school officials that appear to discredit administrators' earlier claims they didn't know about accusations of Ashcraft's alleged relationship with a student.

On Dec. 17, 45-year-old Ashcraft was charged with sexual misconduct with a minor and child seduction for allegedly engaging in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old player.

E-mail correspondence indicate Ashcraft had -- at some point -- been warned about improper behavior and that he was forced to resign in October 2008 for repeated failure to follow school administration orders.

Documenting the accusations

In an Oct. 28, 2008, e-mail, head volleyball coach MaryBeth Lebo asked an athletic trainer to tell her what she witnessed the previous day between Ashcraft and his alleged victim, saying, "I need everything documented and on file. It is a very long story, but I need to continue to document."

Before responding directly to Lebo, the trainer forwarded the note to another person, saying, "Oh boy, it's everywhere."

Ashcraft was called to a meeting the following day with Lebo, Principal Greg Handel and Athletic Director Ed Gilliland, prompting suspicion from Ashcraft's wife, Rhonda Ashcraft, who was assistant varsity volleyball coach.

Rhonda e-mailed Lebo, asking, "What is going on???? Why does Ed want to meet with Bobby today?" Moments later, Lebo replied, "I have been asked by the administration not to discuss it."

Neither Rhonda Ashcraft nor Lebo responded to Times calls seeking comment.

Principal Handel later wrote Assistant Superintendent Jim Dermody about the meeting, according to the e-mails.

"Ed reviewed the most recent observation of how the directions were not followed, Bob (Ashcraft) Agreed," Handel wrote. "Ed told him it was insubirdination (sic) and asked for his immediate resignation. Ed produced a resignation letter, and Bob signed it."

Later that October 2008 afternoon, Dermody wrote LaPorte schools Superintendent Judith DeMuth informing her, "The meeting with Bob Ashcraft was held today."

In December 2009, DeMuth told The Times that Ashcraft's charges and alleged relationship came as a surprise.

"I know as much as you do," DeMuth said. "The first I heard of it was when The Times contacted us."

Superintendent DeMuth, Assistant Superintendent Dermody, Athletic Director Gilliland, Principal Handel and volleyball coach Lebo did not respond to Times calls this week seeking more information, including why Ashcraft was allowed to resign and not fired.

In January, LaPorte School Board member Ron Gigliotti said he "misspoke" when he told a reporter Ashcraft was fired when the alleged sexual activity became known.

Board President Mitch Feikes declined to comment this week, saying, "It's a personnel issue, and our policy is we don't comment on personnel issues. All I can say is, in an official meeting, we accepted his resignation."

Talk of the town

Within days of his resignation, Ashcraft's departure from the school district became fodder for district e-mail chatter.

On Nov. 10, 2008, a LaPorte employee wrote a Hammond school district secretary: "As for Bob, it doesn't sound good. 'inappropriate' relationship with a player type of thing? I don't know that it is true. But whatever it is, it was bad enough that he quit."

A few days later, another LaPorte employee detailed a lengthier accusation, writing, "There's been some 'inappropriate' behavior, and Bob's been warned and then put on probation by the athletic dept. I guess sectionals was the last draw, and he was forced to resign.

"I've seen girls ... sit on his lap numerous times and the girl you mentioned was on the varsity team and they were a little too chummy."

Multiple people describe in other e-mails a specific incident wherein Ashcraft and the girl allegedly were caught together.

Ashcraft's lawyer, Steve Snyder, has declined to comment on the e-mails and the criminal charges against his client.

The e-mails also indicate administrators knew LaPorte police had investigated Ashcraft a year before prosecutors criminally charged him.

On Dec. 3, 2008, school resource officer Sgt. Mike Kellems told LaPorte police Chief of Detectives Clyde Crass that Lebo "stopped me in the office this afternoon and asked if there was anything more on the investigation as Bob Ashcraft had called her and asked for a meeting."

Five days later -- after another police detective told Kellems he was closing his Ashcraft investigation with no charges -- Kellems wrote Dermody that a witness was expected to step forward about the alleged relationship.

Kellems suggested a meeting with school staff, including Gilliland and Handel. It is unclear from the e-mails if the meeting took place.

In January 2010, the school district hired lawyer Larry Evans at a rate of $250 an hour to conduct an internal probe of what officials knew about the relationship.

School Board President Feikes said he does not know how many hours Evans has spent so far, but said, "The board is committed to finding out what really happened. We are disturbed by it just like everyone else. We are not going to let it go."

Feikes said members have "not had any discussions whatsoever" about possible future personnel changes stemming from the case.

"We will deal with it appropriately," he said. "But we need to know what the facts are."

THE CASE: E-mails obtained by The Times indicate Robert Ashcraft, an assistant girls volleyball coach, had been warned about improper behavior and that he was forced to resign in October 2008 for repeated failure to follow school administration orders.

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