CHESHIRE — The school district’s longtime athletic director and its head high school football coach both received disciplinary notices after officials discovered a multi-year lapse in coach Don Drust Jr.’s state certifications, according to personnel records and emails obtained by the Record-Journal through a Freedom of Information request.
State Department of Education records show that during a nearly five year period, from late September 2014 to late March 2019, Drust did not hold an active five year coaching permit, which is mandatory, while calling plays from the sideline and running practices. Drust’s previous temporary coaching permit, which was valid for one year, had expired in September 2014.
The lapse nearly cost Drust his job and spurred officials to adopt a system for ensuring more consistent oversight of coaching certifications.
Though local officials did not disclose the reason for concern regarding Drust, current athletes and former football players and their families became aware that his job might be at risk and showered their coach with support this past summer. Many of them emailed school officials and Board of Education members. A group of them also gathered in front of the district’s offices at Humiston School in late June.
According to documents, School Superintendent Jeffrey Solan and district Athletic Director Steve Trifone both maintained that throughout Drust’s tenure he actually held the requisite credentials and received the ongoing training — including completing a 45-hour coaching course and CPR and concussion training — needed to qualify for the five year permit.
By the time the lapse was discovered, Drust had already been a coach in some capacity with the football team for 13 years. He began as an assistant coach in 2007. In 2012, he was offered the interim head coaching job. Drust’s offer letter stated the offer was based on him obtaining the five year permit.
Without publicly revealing the lapse in certification, Solan announced in early July that after an investigation into “some concerns brought forward,” the issue has been “resolved.”
He did not mention that Drust and Trifone faced discipline in the matter.
The permit lapse occurred on Trifone’s watch.
In a letter dated July 16, Solan informed the athletic director he would be suspended three days without pay for failing to notice the lapse.
“After a thorough review, it was clear that the coach had completed all required preparation and ongoing professional development to be eligible for certification. Nevertheless, the failure of our coaches to obtain certification in a timely manner produces liability for our school system and undermines our credibility,” Solan wrote in the notice. “While it is the coach’s obligation to secure certification, it is also incumbent on the Athletic Director to ensure that certification is in place.”
Solan confirmed to the Record-Journal that Trifone had served the three-day suspension over the summer.
Solan, in the letter, described the situation as “somewhat extraordinary in that you have an incredibly accomplished performance history and have never been subject to discipline.” As such, Solan added the letter would be rescinded after Trifone presented a secure plan for monitoring current and future certifications and documented success in doing so.
Drust, meanwhile, received a five-day suspension without pay, according to a July 1 disciplinary letter from Solan, which similarly stated the lapse had caused liability and “undermines our credibility.”
“This process has never been about your character nor performance,” Solan wrote to Drust. “I know that you realize that I have complete confidence in both.”
Drust is expected to serve that suspension during the spring of 2021, Solan confirmed. Drust’s five year coaching permit, issued in 2019, expires in 2024.
Trifone declined to comment on his own disciplinary notice. Drust also declined to comment on the matter.
Regardless of the football coach’s status, it has been a trying several months for the Cheshire Rams football team. In September, Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference officials announced the cancellation of full contact football for the season, because the sport was deemed by public health officials as a high risk of spreading COVID-19.
Drust stated his focus is on keeping the team active and together despite the season’s cancellation.
“We’re just trying to engage as best we can,” Drust said. That includes in-person practices and virtual meetings.
“Any way we possibly can keep them together,” Drust said, describing the camaraderie that the team builds over the course of a season as something “they so desperately need.”
“We are just trying to do everything possible to give them that, to give them each other — something positive to lean on,” Drust said. “That’s the most important thing right now.”
Inconsistent monitoring of coaches’ permits is not unique to Cheshire Public Schools.
Earlier this fall, reporters for Hearst Connecticut, whose newspapers include the New Haven Register and the Connecticut Post, reported their findings that from 2018 to 2020 in New Haven and Fairfield counties alone, the certifications of more than 100 coaches in multiple school sports had lapsed.
Separately, the Record-Journal looked into how the situation in Cheshire unfolded. Email records obtained by the paper through a public records request show at least three Cheshire Board of Education members had raised questions around Drust’s state-issued coaching certifications months before public knowledge that his job might be in jeopardy.
Last January, newly elected board member and chairman of the personnel committee Timothy White emailed Solan with a general question regarding the certifications required for athletic coaches and staff members who oversee other extracurricular activities.
Three days later, White emailed Solan asking how many certifications had lapsed during his tenure as superintendent. Weeks later, on Feb. 4, Solan responded he could recall two incidents where there had been lapses: that of Drust and an assistant hockey coach.
“In each case they immediately issued permits,” Solan wrote.
Records show White honed in on Drust’s certifications in particular. He shared his findings with board colleagues Adam Grippo and chairman Anthony Perugini, both fellow Republicans.
On Feb. 24, White emailed state Department of Education officials about Drust’s certifications. He did not inquire about any other coaching staff, state officials confirmed.
State education officials’ disclosed the nearly five-year lapse to White, which he in turn shared with Grippo and Perugini via email on March 12.
Grippo’s reply came shortly after 3 p.m. that day. “So he had no coaching permit from 9/26/14 to 3/26/19?” he asked.
White responded moments later: “Yes, that is correct… he’s been permitted to coach... from 9/26/2013 to 9/25/2014 and from 3/26/2019 to date. That’s less than two years out of the past eight years,” White wrote.
White, reached by phone recently, said his primary concern in making the inquiry “was ensuring trust” between not just the superintendent and the board, but the superintendent and the public.
When a reporter posed a question about any “trust” issues with the board or the public, Solan declined to comment.
The emails between White, Grippo and Perugini around coaching certifications came among other exchanges with district officials about oversight of the athletic department. White, around that time, aired posts on the Cheshire Education Facebook group that he was looking into families’ concerns about the certifications of coaches and advisors who oversee other after school activities.
In February, Perugini emailed Solan with a request for an independent audit of the athletics department stating “I personally don’t have confidence in (Trifone) when it comes to management/oversight on matters like this.”
In that message, Perugini referenced a non-profit donation to the athletic department that officials didn’t account for, and the district’s handling of a request by the girls’ ice hockey team to be officially designated a varsity sport, instead of a club activity.
Emails provided to the Record-Journal showed a gap in correspondence, from late March until June. A reporter was made aware of correspondence between board members, officials and attorneys but was denied access to them, with officials citing attorney-client privilege.
‘Not yet done’
White acknowledged the lapse of activity that occurred when in-person instruction halted last March due to the pandemic. He said his questions about coaches were general in nature.
“... From my perspective, this is not yet done, because we haven’t reviewed the other coaches, and hopefully as COVID passes, my goal is that we do get some sort of review of the athletic department,” White said.
Meanwhile, Trifone and Solan both explained the district has adopted a new system for monitoring the status of permits and certifications.
“We have built up a database. We now monitor all of the certifications for the coaches who are currently working for us,” Trifone said. “It red flags them when they are about to expire.”
Permit expiration dates also are now listed on coaches’ evaluation forms, Trifone said.
Until this year, it had been up to coaches to self-monitor and renew their certifications, including five-year permits.
It’s still the coaches’ responsibility to ensure they are certified. However, the district has since streamlined its own tracking process, in part by including permit expiration dates in a box on coach evaluation forms, Trifone said.
District officials found that coaches whose certifications had lapsed were “due to just a lack of turning in the paperwork,” Trifone said. “They have the credentials. They’re just not turning them in.”
In a given year, there are between 90 to 95 athletic coaches district wide. At least 80 of them are paid coaches, while the rest are volunteers, Trifone said. Their permits are all current, according to officials.
In addition to the new system for monitoring coaching certifications, the district implemented a new reporting structure, in which Trifone is to issue reports around certifications to Cheshire High School Principal Mary Gadd.
“We fully expect to receive these reports in a timely manner going forward,” Grippo wrote in an email to the Record-Journal. “It’s my understanding that Dr. Gadd will be meeting with Mr. Trifone to compile these reports and certify them. They are then sent to central office for archival purposes and future review.
“I’m hopeful that this will solve the clerical lapses that have occurred in the past and that for the safety of our students, never happen again,” Grippo wrote.
Grippo, like White, stated he would like to see an independent audit of the athletic department conducted “as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
“COVID has obviously slowed this effort but it will be done,” Grippo wrote.
Public support for Coach Drust
Despite White’s statement that families had raised concerns about the certifications of coaches, records do not show that any families had called for Drust’s ouster. Records showed scores of emails supporting the coach.
At the outset of a remote virtual board meeting on June 29, Perugini acknowledged that influx of public support for Drust’s continued tenure, praising those who took the time to contact board members.
At the same time, he called out other members of the public for hurling accusations toward other Cheshire town officials alleging their involvement in the situation.
“Let’s lead by example, please stop the accusations, let the process play out,” Perugini said at the time. He added he understood the situation to be “very fluid” and one that he hoped could be resolved.
“Trust the board of ed, trust your school system. Let this process play out,” Perugini said during that meeting. “I have no doubt we will continue to receive correspondence. It’s refreshing to see that. Because it’s a personnel matter, we cannot comment.”