Text Messages Reveal Change in Tone about Mentoring

A late November change in the way the Riverbend High School swim team selects captains has led to a rupture in relationships between coaches, parents, and student-athletes at Riverbend High School.

Speaking on a podcast last week, however, Riverbend Principal Xavier Downs—now on administrative leave—and a parent of a student-athlete on the team are arguing the change in how captains are selected did not spark the drama. Rather, they claim, the trouble began when the parent became aware of a series of text messages between assistant coach Theo Marcus and a female member of the swim team. Downs and the parent argue that “the volume” of text messages between the two was the real problem, not the change in leadership style.

However, a review by FXBG Advance of Marcus’ text messages between the student and himself, as well as the text messages between him and the parent, show that the parent gave the student-athlete’s number to Marcus, and had apparently invited him to mentor the student-athlete. Further, the parent repeatedly thanked Marcus for his mentorship between February 2023 and the middle of November.

The parent appears to have become critical of Marcus and the program only in late November—after the leadership change was announced, almost 10 months after the parent first shared the child’s phone number with Marcus.

Logging the Text Messages

The parent at the center of this debate first shared the student-athlete’s number with Marcus on January 29, 2023. Marcus was running late to meet the student-athlete at the gym, and had texted the parent and asked that they inform the student-athlete.

The parent responded by “liking” the text message and then forwarded the student-athlete’s number to him.

According to Marcus, the parent had earlier asked him to “mentor” the student-athlete. There is no text message that explicitly shows the parent requesting mentorship, but just a few days after giving Marcus the student-athlete’s number, the parent is thanking Marcus for “mentoring” the student-athlete.

The messages between the student and Marcus start in early February 2023.

In a February 3 message, the parent told Marcus, “We so appreciate you! [My child] has never been competitive at sports and it’s nice to see [them] so motivated. Thank you!”

The following day, the parent again wrote to Marcus: “You’re the best! Shared your text message with [my child]. So good to hear we are on the right track and you have been a part of mentoring [my child] for sure! [My child] really looks up to you. Thankful to God that you are in our lives.”

Between February and December of 2023, there is an average of one message per day from the student to Marcus and less than one per day from Marcus to the student. The majority of the message exchanges occur during the summer and involve the student reporting on their efforts to organize members of the swim team to attend workout sessions at a local gym.

At the request of the student and the parent, Marcus also provided guidance on the student’s college search. In a March 5 message, the parent wrote to Marcus, “[My child] respects you and I hope we can influence her to stay close to God’s teachings and away from Woke for her studies.”

The student asks Marcus to review college application materials and serve as a reference.

The majority of the message exchanges take place during the day and evening, and a few take place shortly after 10 p.m. The exchanges were usually initiated by the student.

There are three references to phone calls, each initiated by the student—one in July to discuss connecting with contacts of Marcus’s at a college the student was considering, and the others on December 1 and 3 when the student wanted to quit the team after the new leadership model was introduced.

The parent’s relationship with Marcus was also positive through most of November.

On October 14, the parent wrote to both Marcus and head swim coach Rachael Adriani, “You two are valuable mentors to these kids. Can’t express in words how much it’s made a difference.”

On November 14, the parent wrote to both coaches, “You have both inspired [my child] … and we are grateful for your mentoring,” and on November 17, the parent wrote to Marcus, “You are an amazing person, mentor, motivator and father. I clearly see that.”

Tone Shifts As Leadership Models Shifts

Marcus and Adriani introduced the new leadership model in late November. Called Bear Pods, the model formed eight smaller groups within the large, 45-member team, each led by a pod captain.

The parent immediately expressed frustration with the change.

On November 28 and 29, the parent said in text messages to Marcus that having a group of captains is “like a participation trophy,” that the team “isn’t taken seriously” and is “too large,” that the new leadership model turns the team into “a social program” and “weight management for kids” and that it’s “a slap in the face” for the coaches to make their child one of a group of captains.

In one of these text messages, the parent informed Marcus that the student “doesn’t have time for anything negative or unproductive that takes [them] away from [their] goals.”

The student asked for a phone call with Marcus on December 1 and on December 3, after Bear Pods was introduced, saying “I’ve put my all into it and I feel like I’m being slapped in the face by [Adriani].”

There appear to be no more messages between the student and Marcus after December 3.

Leveraging the School Board

The parent apparently has a close relationship with at least one member of the former School Board’s majority bloc. In an October 29 text message to Adriani, the parent said they “talk often” with now-former School Board Chair Lisa Phelps.

On December 4, the parent informed Adriani that they were “getting off the phone with the School Board.”

Text messages from the parent to both coaches show that the student attended the first meeting of the pod captains and coaches at Marcus’s house on December 9. The next day, the parent said in a text message to the coaches that Marcus had been “speaking negatively” during the meeting about other high school sports programs.

Shortly after this, the parent told Adriani in a text message that “someone was going [to] place a formal complaint [against Marcus].” In her response, Adriani suggested a meeting between herself, Marcus, the parent, athletic director Jesse Lohr and Downs.

Coaches Raise Concerns to School Leadership

It’s not clear if this meeting occurred, but Adriani and Marcus met with Lohr and Downs on December 11 to inform them that “a parent or parents” had made allegations against Marcus.

Adriani summarized this meeting and its aftermath in a December 19 email to Lohr, Downs and all swim parents, saying that after the December 11 meeting, “Coach Theo and I were bombarded with messages demanding Coach Theo to stop talking and to basically be silent. All Coach Theo had done was defend and support the program model that we have created and put in place, Bear Pods. There is a party who does not like the Bear Pods idea and has not given it a chance to grow. They are trying to commit an abortion within the program by negatively attacking the coaching model we are using.”

On December 13, Marcus, who works as an attorney for the federal government, requested a leave of absence from his coaching position. He explained his request in an email to Adriani.

“The issues that someone is claiming are out there in the atmosphere of our Program cannot be allowed to stand or fester but must be brought into the light and dealt with. If there is any substance to the innuendo, then it is for the benefit of our Program, the student-athletes, the school, us coaches, etc., to address it now. I welcome any opportunity to have the air cleared.”

He continued, “If there is no substance to the innuendo or, worse, the allegations are being falsely made for some illegitimate reason, then there should be action taken to put a stop to it and to remonstrate with such individuals so that their mischief does not create liability exposure due to them disparaging the character of a 31+ year licensed practitioner of law.”

Administrative Review of Text Messages

On December 14, the parent emailed text message records to Lohr and Downs.

Downs told Marcus in a text message on December 16, after he had seen the records, that “My position is that there isn’t anything substantial to any complaint and RHS is happy to have you.”

He also offered to help Marcus file a formal complaint with the division superintendent.

On December 19, Adriani asked Downs for an open meeting with administration and swim parents. “My complaint is this: the team foundation has been attacked and the coaches have been bullied. To resolve this an open discussion is required so set the time and we will be there,” she wrote.

The meeting was held on December 20 and grew heated. Following the meeting, Downs and Adriani were placed on administrative leave. Marcus, who had earlier resigned, requested to return to coaching, but was informed by Lohr that his resignation had already taken effect.

Seeking Answers from Downs, Parent

The Advance reached out to Downs on January 11, after his appearance on the podcast, to ask if something had happened to change his position regarding the text messages between Marcus and the student.

In an email, Downs wrote, “My position has not changed, I have maintained my position as an intermediary for all parties involved. It was not founded that the content of the messaging was inappropriate, however the volume was of concern as well as the practice of contacting the student directly without appropriate visibility and utilizing the appropriate platform.”

However, it’s unclear what guidelines were to be followed by Marcus, the student, or the parent.

Mike McCall, director of communications for the Virginia High School League said in an email to the Advance that there is no league policy prohibiting text messaging between coaches and student-athletes.

“The incident you’re describing is completely a school and division issue,” he wrote. “Those are policies established by the school board.”

The Advance has reviewed Riverbend High School’s coaching manual and found no prohibition against text messaging between coaches and student-athletes.

The school division has a regulation, KB-R, which governs employee’s use of social media and lays out guidelines for employee’s use of the internet and social media. It states, “SCPS recommends employees not use their personal social media accounts to interact with current SCPS students and families,” but does not mention text messaging.

In an interview with the Advance, Marcus said the student’s family was “looking for a Christ-centric mentoring that would not have been possible in a classic coaching student-athlete relationship because of the restrictions that prevail in a secular School environment. I would not have been legally or ethically permitted to provide that type of mentoring strictly as a coach for Riverbend High School.”

On Friday, January 12, the parent at the center of the dispute responded to a request from the Advance for an interview. The parent expressed discomfort with speaking to the media, but asked what questions the Advance had. We sent the following questions by email to the parent:

1. You gave [the child’s] email to the coach and asked him to mentor [the child], and were aware of the mentoring relationship. Is this accurate?

2. From the time you asked the coach to stop texting, there has been no communication with [the child]. Is this accurate?

3. We saw no evidence of excessive texting. Could you define “excessive” and provide evidence that you raised concerns about this prior to the announcement of the leadership change.

4. Our reading of the text messages is that [the child] was upset about the change in the leadership model, and that you were as well. And that it was at that point you expressed concern about the mentoring relationship that you had requested. Is this accurate, and if not, can you please provide evidence to the contrary?

5. Finally, you said that our previous articles were not accurate. Could you please explain where we were incorrect, and could you provide evidence to support that claim?

Shortly after this email, we sent a second email correcting an error in the first question. We clarified that the parent had given the child’s “phone number” and not their email.

The parent responded, “Your questions with my answers have been forwarded to a national media outlet.”

As of publication, the Advance has not received answers to the questions directly from the parent.

Editor’s Note – How We Reported This Story

The following piece, as well as the one to follow at 5 p.m. this afternoon, are the result of extensive interviews with people inside the Spotsylvania County Public School administration, coaches, parents of student-athletes at Riverbend High School, and numerous individuals with first-hand knowledge of the events over a period of a month. These pieces are also built upon a review of hundreds of text messages and emails. Our earlier pieces about the controversy at Riverbend High School can be read herehere, and here.

by Adele Uphaus
MANAGING EDITOR AND CORRESPONDENT