For those in charge of Napa High School and its school district, 2017 may be a year to leave in the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible.
Accusations of football players assaulting teammates, the resulting resignation of team coaches, and a squabble over abandoning the school’s Indians nickname dominated the headlines streaming from campus.
Those controversies – as well as financial woes in the Napa Valley Unified School District – culminated in an effort to force out the district’s trustees at the ballot box. The drive to put a recall measure on the ballot in 2018 died after failing to garner enough signatures by a late-November deadline, a rare note of good news for administrators to close the year.
The strife at Napa High began with the announcement by Napa Police in November 2016 that it had received reports of a hazing ritual involving members of the junior varsity football team, during that season and the year before. The assaults involved players holding down teammates, grabbing and hitting them, Capt. Jennifer Gonzales told reporters at the time.
Napa Valley Unified confirmed the hazing reports in January, and investigated nearly a dozen JV football players accused of participating. But news that Napa High was moving to suspend and expel some of the boys inflamed students, parents and other supporters who accused the school district of rushing to judgment and pinning the offenses to innocent teens.
By March, a meeting of Napa Valley Unified trustees became target practice for those objecting to the district’s hazing investigation. John Torres attacked the suspension of his football-playing son Johnny as declaring him “guilty until proven innocent.” Another JV player, Josh Marshall, said he had been accused because of a clerical error despite not even being on campus at the time of the hazing.
Johnny Torres, a JV quarterback and straight-A student, denied any part in an October 2016 incident in which a schoolmate reportedly was dragged into a locker room, then held down while a third student poked him in the buttocks while clothed.
On May 4, the Napa County Office of Education overturned Torres’ expulsion and allowed him to return to Napa High. Two other football players kicked out for alleged hazing also had their expulsions reversed a month later, turnabouts that reportedly had not taken place in least 25 years.
But such victories for the students did not stop Napa County authorities from pursuing criminal cases tied to the hazings. Ultimately, the District Attorney’s Office would file charges against six Napa High teens, and investigate 11 others.
Amid the hazing case, Troy Mott, Napa High’s varsity head coach of 11 years, resigned in March after conflicts with administrators on how to rebuild the football program in the scandal’s aftermath. When Mott’s assistant staff followed him out the door and half a dozen candidates to replace him declined the job, a team that had won the last three Monticello Empire League titles was faced with possibly canceling its 2017 season at all levels – varsity, JV and freshman squads idled.
Finally, the district in May hired Napa’s JV head coach Jesus Martinez as Mott’s successor, ensuring the games would go on. But the varsity team limped to a 3-6 record, failing to make the section playoffs and closing the season with its first Big Game loss to Vintage High in 12 years.
Meanwhile, the nickname sported by Napa High’s football players and all its other athletes for decades became another flashpoint – a cultural and racial one.
In February, a school district committee voted to recommend retiring the Indians name and mascot, part of a nationwide move away from sports monikers considered offensive to Native American peoples. Outraged defenders of the Indians symbol attacked the move – and the school board – in an April meeting marked by shouts and outbursts by some of the more than 600 spectators in the district auditorium. Even before the meeting, a shouting match broke out between pro-mascot alumni and a group of Native Americans and activists.
That forum, and a second one in May, produced no action for or against the Indians mascot, and the matter remained tabled and unresolved by year’s end.
The news was little better on the fiscal front. In June, Napa Valley Unified announced a $12.4 million budget deficit, as falling enrollment – which it blamed partly on soaring home prices walling off families with school-age children – reduced the state educational funding that is based on the number of students. A new budget eliminated 110 full-time teaching and other positions, many by early-retirement payments but 42 by layoffs.
The succession of troubles added up, in the eyes of some residents, to a leadership unequal to the challenges – and a chance to give voters a shot at voting in an entirely new school board.
Over the summer break, Napa Valley Unified’s foes spent sweaty days outside local groceries and the Town & Country Fair, urging passers-by to sign petitions to recall all seven board members in the district. Their target: the 10,000 valid signatures for each trustees they needed within 160 days to put recalls to a vote in November 2018.
For some, the fight to protect Napa High’s generations-old Indians symbol was at the heart of their battle against the school district’s leadership.
“I’m third-generation Napa Indian,” said Marshall Jaeger as he manned a recall booth at the Napa fair with his wife and friend – members of the Class of 1959 like himself. “My brother, my father, my mom, all went to Napa High. We’ve had the Indian as our symbol for 120-plus years. I have a real passion that tradition should be carried on.”
But on the filing deadline of Nov. 29, what emerged instead was a statement from recall backers – that they had run out of time to collect the signatures needed. Their effort to throw out the school board was over.
Afterward, one of the trustees targeted by the recall called himself unperturbed by the effort.
“I’m glad it failed to get enough signatures and we can move on,” said Jose Hurtado, then the president of the school board. “I lost a few nights of sleep, but really – if you’re in an elected position, it’s part of the job.”