School district clears Ponte Vedra High School lacrosse coach

I-TEAM: State athletic association investigating parents' complaints

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - The St. Johns County School District said it has cleared a well-known high school lacrosse coach who was investigated for possibly breaking athletic association rules.

Parents asked the I-TEAM to look into complaints about Ponte Vedra lacrosse coach Tom West that made it all the way to the Florida High School Athletic Association, or FHSAA.

In business records obtained by the I-TEAM, West is listed as the manager of three private lacross travel teams, which give players the opportunity to showcase and perfect their skills in preparation for the high school season. 

"If you don't play in his off-season leagues, then you won't play on the high school teams," one parent told the I-TEAM. "That's a direct conflict of interest."

That parent and another News4Jax spoke with asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against their sons, who still attend Ponte Vedra High School, where West coaches.

Other parents told the I-TEAM that the few parents who are complaining are upset because their kids were benched or cut from the high school team. The St. Johns County School district said they’ve investigated and found no wrongdoing. 

The complaining parents said text messages we obtained through a public records requests show a conflict of interest. 

In the text message, West asked a lacrosse player, “Is there a reason why you are not playing for my Ponte Vedra team this weekend?” 

The student responded: "No, I really just wanna, it's just, that with football practice, I would miss practices. I thought you wouldn't let me play in the tourney."

West responded: "You are expected to be a major contributor this year."

In another text message, another coach informed West, "A lot of kids aren't playing Possums this summer because they are doing other things like Sweet Lax and Florida Alliance and Crush."

West responded: "That won't happen, we’ll make sure of it."

West agreed to an interview about the complaints from parents that their kids were going to cut or benched if they didn't play in his private lacrosse league.

“I don’t have any comment on that, I’m only going to talk about the Ponte Vedra High School team. I do not want this to be a distraction," West said.

As a result of the district's initial investigation, West said he no longer communicates with players through text messages, but instead through a school-sponsored app.

That change was one of several corrective actions the district gave to West last summer. He was told:

  • Texting students is discouraged, and will not be allowed during any instructional time.  The district said communicating with students should be face-to-face unless he's sending a message to the entire team about scheduling matters.
  • All club and school activities must be insulated from one another and School team operations must be distinctly different from any club activities.
  • West, who has also been a sales representative for lacrosse equipment companies must make sure that all team purchases, must be done through independent 3rd party vendors, and not companies he's associated with.

 But that was not enough for some parents, who took their complaints to the FHSAA.

On Jan. 29, the organization informed the school that it was looking into the complaints against Coach West because parents say West was improperly communicating with student players via text, and for recruiting violations.

On Tuesday, St. Johns County's director of school services, Paul Abbatinozzi, told the I-TEAM that the school found no evidence of wrongdoing in the complaints reported to FHSAA. Abbatinozzi added it was a matter the district took seriously.

"It raises an alarm for us when people make allegations of a coach out there doing something inappropriate,”Abbatinozzi said.

FHSAA spokesperson Kyle Niblett told the I-TEAM that their probe into the complaints will take several more days to complete.

Niblett said his organization is still comparing the 116-page document comparing all of the complaints to the two-page response submitted to the FHSAA on Feb. 8 by Ponte Vedra High School Athletic Director David Scott. 

News4Jax will do a follow-up report when the state association's investigation is complete.

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