Española Public Schools placed Española Valley head girls basketball coach Johnny Abeyta on leave, pending an investigation by the district, Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez confirmed Wednesday.
Gutierrez declined to discuss the nature of the investigation, other than to say it concerned issues Española Valley Principal Robert Archuleta and Deputy Superintendent Leslie Romero-Kilmer were aware of for the past couple of weeks.
"It was escalated to my level a few days ago," Gutierrez said.
Abeyta, who is in his first year as head coach, declined to comment until the matter is resolved. Junior varsity assistant Bobbie Romero took over coaching duties Tuesday.
It's the third district investigation into the athletic department in the past two months. In late November, the district opened an inquiry into Española head volleyball coach Damon Salazar, who said the investigation centered on his treatment of players. In December, Española athletic director Phillip Roybal was placed on leave came under scrutiny regarding "concerns with the football program," Gutierrez wrote in a text message to The New Mexican. Roybal fired head coach Jesus Maes in mid-October and he assisted interim head coach Ron DuPree for the rest of the season because of a lack of assistants.
Roybal is still on leave pending investigations by the Children, Youth and Families Department and Española police.
In 2016, Gutierrez investigated former Española head boys basketball coach Richard Martinez over allegations that the coach bullied, threatened and intimidated players, parents, administrators and staff members.
Gutierrez fired Martinez before she resigned in April 2016. Martinez was rehired in July 2016 by a different superintendent. Gutierrez, who was rehired by the school board in June, brought the matter to the attention of the state Public Education Department, which conducted its own inquiry and led to Martinez's dismissal.
Gutierrez said she forwarded her findings in the Salazar and Roybal investigations to the Public Education Department for review. Gutierrez said she placed a hold on Salazar's investigation as she re-interviewed players since new information came to light. She added that another issues was that Roybal handled the interviews in that investigation.
Gutierrez expressed concerned over the investigations, saying "it doesn't feel good to me."
"It is frightening to me because I fear losing good teachers and coaches, because who wants to put themselves out for that?" Gutierrez said. "All it takes is one allegation, whether it is the truth or not the truth, and that reflects poorly on that person."
Salazar, who has guided the volleyball program for the past nine years, expressed reservations over how the school district is handling his case. He said no one has informed him of the specific allegations against him, and he has yet to discuss them with administrators.
"I haven't seen any statements or any documents that anyone has done," Salazar said. "They haven't given me any information for what the investigation is for, other than [Gutierrez] telling me random thing -- that I didn't address kids correctly or that I treated them unfairly."
Salazar defended how he conducted his program, saying that not all players are going to have a good experience, and that is to be expected. He emphasized that the majority of his players "respected me and have enjoyed the program."
"Of course, you have kids that have hard feelings because of the tough decisions we made or because things didn't turn out the way they expected," Salazar said. "That is normal in anything. Sometimes you get the job. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you get the promotion, sometimes you don't. Sports is a microcosm of life. I have been coaching for almost 20 years, and I have a pretty good reputation -- or at least I thought I did."
Gutierrez said she anticipates the district opening up the volleyball coach position for applications once she finishes her interviews, but added that Salazar is welcome to reapply. At the school board meeting on Wednesday night, Gutierrez said that all coaching positions will be reopened for the 2018-19 school year, following the protocol the district used last year.
"Coaches' contracts do not have a property right to them, so those can be annually [opened for applications]," Gutierrez said in a phone interview.
As for the investigation into Abeyta, Gutierrez didn't specify a timetable, but wanted to complete it as quickly as possible.
Salazar was disappointed to hear that he might have to reapply for his job, and he wasn't sure if he would go through the process again.
"If there are no findings [of mistreatment], then am I being singled out?" Salazar said. "That is an odd situation when I have been doing what I consider a good job. That would be unfortunate. I would have to think about my chances [of rehire] at that point."
Abeyta was hired in June to replace Cindy Roybal, who guided Española to three straight Class 5A semifinals.
Abeyta was best known for his stint at Santa Fe Indian School, where he coached from 1990-2008 and compiled a
He guided SFIS to the Class 3A state title in 2005 in its first year after moving up from Class AA in all sports. He left the school in April 2008 in protest of a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigation against his son, J.R. Abeyta, regarding underage drinking and sexual activity between his son and a player. No action was taken by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Abeyta then spent the 2008-09 season at McCurdy, leading the Lady Bobcats to an 18-9 record.
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