"Swimming Coach or Sexting Coach?," News, 9/7
A Community-Wide Failure
There seem to be a few things worth expanding upon both in further coverage, and, more importantly, with dialogue in our community:
Why didn't the dozens — if not hundreds — of parents, swimmers, coaches, and others who have known Ben Sheppard over the years come forward with a helpful approach to this open secret? What is our shared responsibility after almost fifteen years of Sheppard coaching in our community?
Why didn't the College Preparatory School or Claremont Resort, two places that Sheppard coached, get him help, warn the Undercurrents, or engage the community at large, or take special responsibility for sharing what they knew about Sheppard's past behavior? Why, of the three institutions he's worked at, is the least powerful one — and the only one that has any positive relationship with poor people and people of color in Oakland — the one being hurt the most by how this situation is being handled?
How can we make sure that we don't simply engage in another round of this long-term cycle of alternately demonizing then ignoring unhealthy sexual behavior in our community? It's too convenient simply to destroy someone whose behavior was so widely known, and too irresponsible to paper over Sheppard's obvious untrustworthiness. Ruining his life, or hurting the important work the Undercurrents does, is not an adequate or responsible response.
We don't need a scandalizing Express article to float rumors we've known to be true but refused to talk about. Express or not, what we need is the bravery and honesty it will take to create real solutions to the range of sexist and otherwise unhealthy relationship patterns Sheppard is only one example of.
Lastly, the police are absolutely the last entity we could expect to help this situation — for anyone and all of us. Like it or not, this problem is bigger than any one person, instance, or community. In the Bay Area, there are plenty of organizations working on immediate and long-term solutions to stopping, addressing, and preventing situations like this one. Letting OPD get involved in what is actually a community-wide failure is passing the buck at best; at worst it allows us to ignore the terrible depth of sexual violence in all communities.
The only way to create the thriving, healthy, safe community we want to live in is to build it together.
Ari Wohlfeiler, Oakland
Don't Jump to Conclusions
Come on, Express — before you ruin a man's life, get more than this to report on! Your other article on Jesse Stovall ("Swimming in Sex Abuse," Feature, 4/10/10) was more responsible. This article seems to be going more after USA Swimming than Sheppard, but he gets caught in the crossfire. I'm a father of two young daughters, and I would be the first to get justice, but come on — this is irresponsible reporting! There's not much here but now the world thinks this guy is a child molester.
Full disclosure: I worked for Oakland Parks and Recreation both as a lifeguard and swim coach, and was one of those 'hood swimmers that grew up in the pools. Sheppard was just coming in when I moved on. I didn't particularly care for him because I felt he was getting too much credit for the positives that were already happening in Oakland swimming, but nonetheless, I respected his efforts and love for the kids.
If there does turn out to be more, then report on those facts, but right now, this is shaky and irresponsible. You could have made the article more about USA Swimming and then mentioned Sheppard as a possible example, and you could have reported more about all of the good that the pools are doing for the youth of Oakland. They are literally saving children's lives with swim lessons, junior guards, swim team, and then giving them jobs as swim coaches, lifeguards, cashiers, and pool managers. I challenge you to follow up on this article to speak of some of the positives (not to hide the inappropriate, morally reprehensible behavior by Sheppard) so that the news isn't all about scandals. Check out the new ESO Sports Complex; Alison at Lions Pool, who has taught tiny tots for three decades (including my two daughters); Harith leading the charge at OPR; and the hundreds of lifeguards who are employed in the summer rather than running around on the streets.
Andrew Park, Oakland
My family has been involved with Oakland Undercurrents for more than more years. We currently have no affiliation with Undercurrents, but to know that this adult has been doing this over the years and hiding it really sickens me. It makes me feel like trust is nonexistent.
This is a tragedy. We have trusted that Coach Ben's heart and spirit were in the correct place. Our children deserve to grow up and not have to look over their shoulders when it comes to people who have been welcomed into their homes and lives. The children deserve to grow up feeling safe and secure in their community. This not only has damaged the young women that it happened to, but it has and will hurt the Oakland Undercurrents and Oakland Community Pools Project, as well as the many families that have supported Coach Ben and the swim team.