ATASCADERO – Questions, confusion and messages of support came from locals and the education community last week regarding stories in two local publications reporting that Atascadero High School health teacher and coach Chris Ferree was accused of misdemeanor assault of a student.
The family of the alleged student victim could pursue a civil lawsuit, but the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office said yesterday that the case is still being reviewed and no charges have been filed.
“That case is with one of our filing deputies,” Lee Cunningham, Assistant District Attorney for the County of San Luis Obispo, said. His office has received the Atascadero police report regarding the incident. Cunningham has not been assigned to the case due to conflict of interest (he personally knows Ferree).
“It’s under review,” he said. “If we make a decision that it’s appropriate to file a criminal charge then we prepare it and file a complaint with the court, but the determination hasn’t been made yet.”
In a San Luis Obispo Tribune story published earlier this week, the newspaper claimed that the Atascadero Police Department had forwarded them a report stating that the police did not make a recommendation to charge Ferree. The Tribune later reported that the District Attorney’s office received a report from the Atascadero Police Department recommending a misdemeanor battery charge, which requires, “harmful or offensive touching” against Ferree.
The Tribune story was true, but the public may not have been clear on the legal process.
“There’s been confusion over the term ‘recommended,’” Cunningham explained. All criminal cases referred to his office carry a designation over what crime the police department thinks might have been committed, guilty or innocent.
“It’s not really a ‘recommendation’ one way or another,” he said. “We review it independently and make an independent decision as to whether we think a crime has been committed and whether to file a criminal charge.”
In late November Atascadero Unified School District released a press release stating that “significant elements of the allegations are unfounded,” in regards to the district’s own investigation of a received complaint that Ferree had assaulted a student during class at the high school.
Ferree has coached wrestling, football, water polo and cheerleading at Atascadero High School for the past 25 years.
Shantelle Andrews, the Merced County attorney representing the family of the minor student, was quoted in the Tribune as saying the alleged incident occurred when the student was misbehaving during a movie in class. According to the Tribune, Andrews said Ferree allegedly grabbed the student by the front of his sweater, forced him to the floor and “thumped him on the chest,” which she described as a potential assault and battery case. To be clear, Andrews’ claim would be considered part of a civil lawsuit and is not associated with the County District Attorney’s Office’s process, where the case is being reviewed to see if an actual crime has been committed.
“That would be a civil case,” Cunningham said. “We would have no involvement in that.”
Atascadero Police Sergeant Caleb Davis said he handled the report from AUSD and sent it to the District Attorney’s office. Atascadero Police has no further information and Davis added, “the case is closed.”
Community members, including the mayor of Atascadero, Tom O’Malley, voiced their concern over the complaint going ‘public’ on social media.
Community members posted concerns and questions online regarding the handling of the complaint against Ferree. Many expressed outrage with the headlines from the news stories in fear of tarnishing Ferree’s reputation.
Mayor O’Malley wrote on Facebook, “The Ferree family has always been a blessing to our family and our community. Many offer their own experiences in this time of unwarranted negativity. I am especially thankful for the Ferree family's support of our kids. Trevor had the best role model possible with Chris [Ferree] during many years of youth and high school wrestling. It gave him a solid moral base through his West Point years and now serving as a Major in Afghanistan. I have learned to expect some to look for fault, even where none exists, in the world of politics. I trust with the outpouring of respect and love from our community, the Ferree family can enjoy the comfort of a life that has inspired so many over all else.”
The details regarding the complaint against Ferree have not been released and concerns regarding the student involved will have to wait due to privacy restrictions.
AUSD said in a public statement, “Since the matter under review and involves student and personnel confidentiality, the district cannot provide further comment at this time.”
However the Tribune quoted Merced Attorney Andrews as saying the student did not attend school one recent day “after receiving death threats when news of the investigation emerged,” as he was allegedly fearing for his safety.
The school district wanted to make clear, said that press release, “that it takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain the safety and well-being of student and staff, and will take all appropriate steps to address any parent, student or staff concerns.”
You may reach Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or feedback.