Pa. school board president banned from Olympic sports for sexual misconduct against a minor in the 1980s

  • Jen Kinney/Keystone Crossroads

(Philadelphia) — A former chairman of Pennsylvania’s Board of Education, Larry Wittig, has been permanently banned from US Olympic sports for sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Wittig resigned from the board in 2017 after the Philadelphia Inquirer first published the allegations, but he remains school board president of the Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County.

The allegations date back to the 1980s, when Wittig coached high school, collegiate, and Olympic crew teams. The ban means he is ineligible to participate in any Olympic-related sports or organizations, including the Vesper Rowing Club in Philadelphia, of which he had been a member. The determination was made by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which investigates sexual abuse within the Olympics and Paralympics.

“While Larry was in the rowing community, that means he is not allowed to participate in any sports that might be considered an Olympic activity,” said John Wik, director of SafeSport and Special Programs at the United States Rowing Association. “He is just banned from the sports altogether.”

Wittig, a driving force behind Tamaqua’s plan to arm teachers anonymously, has yet to return a request for comment after attempts to reach him by phone and email.

The SafeSport ruling is the result of a nearly two-year investigation kicked off by the 2017 article. In 1981, Wittig coached the girl’s rowing team of Harriton High School in Lower Merion. Multiple women told the paper that, after meeting him in that capacity, Wittig touched them inappropriately while they were underage.

Two said they’d had ongoing sexual relationships with him while they were 16 and 17, and Wittig was in his 30s and married.

One of those women, Annette DeMichele, was coached by Wittig when she was in high school. She says the relationship turned sexual the summer she graduated, when she was 17. That summer, Wittig took her and a teammate to a nude beach while they were in San Diego for a rowing competition. The teammate, Sarah Dalgren, has also accused Wittig of grabbing her crotch on that trip while he slept beside her and other teammates on the floor.

“He slept with us, which was really inappropriate. But at the time it’s what we did — we all slept on the floor in a big room and he slept with us,” said DeMichele in an interview Wednesday.

DeMichele was on her way to study at the University of Pennsylvania. Wittig had just taken a coaching job there. The relationship continued for a year, in secret.

“I had this secret life and I never really settled into college life the way someone that age does, or you would hope would. Our relationship continued all of my freshman year,” said DeMichele.

After it ended — in part because Wittig’s wife had gotten pregnant — Penn launched an ombudsman’s investigation into a rumor that Wittig had had inappropriate sexual contact with undergraduates. He was forced to resign.

But Wittig continued to coach, including for the U.S. Olympic women’s rowing team. In 2001, he was appointed to the Pennsylvania Board of Education by then-Governor Tom Ridge. He became the chairman in 2011.

Wittig resigned in 2017 following the allegations. At the time, he denied them, saying he was only resigning in order to spare Governor Tom Wolf any embarrassment.

But in his interview with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, Wittig admitted to having an ongoing sexual relationship with DeMichele. In a copy of the report given to Keystone Crossroads by a source close to the investigation, Wittig said that the age difference was not a concern at the time “because of how Annette carried herself. It was a different time. Kids were much more mature then.”

“I didn’t ask for Annette’s driver’s license when she got into my bed and asked if I can suck it,” Wittig told investigators.

He denied Dalgren’s allegations, saying she might have been motivated by other women coming forward as part of the #MeToo movement. It “might be attractive” to “latch onto the limelight with Annette,” he said, calling it “the only possible explanation I can think of.”

DeMichele, who was interviewed as part of the SafeSport investigation, was able to read the transcript of Wittig’s interview. In it he says he was “livid” that he had to resign from Penn after their relationship was discovered.

“He was angry about this, which is just mind blowing,” said DeMichele. “He seems not to have an appreciation for the fact that a 32-year-old married coach should not be having sexual relationships with student athletes or underage women at all.”

She is pleased about the results of the SafeSport investigation, particularly since many in Tamaqua, where Wittig has been school board president for the past 25 years, seemed to dismiss her allegations.

“I’m enormously relieved that at least he will not have the same potential for access to young women athletes now that SafeSport has banned him. But the fact that he still is the head of his local school board and has any kind of authority over young people is deeply troubling,” she said.

“I think people in Tamaqua now who are supporters of his have seen good that he’s done. But what they have trouble putting together with that is that someone like that can also be a sexual predator.”

Wittig is up for reelection in November. He easily advanced through the primary in May.

 

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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