UMKC softball players say they were sexually harassed by their coach
The women’s softball players were getting dressed when the male assistant coach barged into their locker room. He needed to use the microwave oven. Again.
Greg Bachkora had made a habit of it.
“Some girls would have to cover themselves or duck behind the couch, scrambling to cover themselves,” a player’s father said.
Another player, new to the University of Missouri-Kansas City team last year, said an older player told her Bachkora’s visits were so frequent that he “has seen me naked more than my boyfriend has.”
Bachkora had also kissed some of the players and once joked in front of them about female genitalia.
But last May, when three players told university officials their allegations of sexual harassment — backed by the coach’s later admission that much of it was true — Bachkora didn’t get disciplined.
He got a new microwave.
Nine months later, an open-and-shut case has pried open again, revealing a lingering unease on UMKC’s softball team and hard feelings between former players, their parents and university officials. Privacy experts say, in fact, the university violated federal law by releasing identifying information about the young women who made allegations in the case.
As the team begins its 2019 season this month, all of the players who complained have left the program, though they had eligibility remaining.
“I actually left because it was such a bad situation,” one of the former players said. “I just thought it was weird. I’m just happy to be out of the school. It made me uncomfortable.”
Bachkora is still the assistant coach. And he’s still making appearances in the women’s locker room, according to a current player.
“I still see the same behavior. I don’t think he comes in as often, but he still does it,” said the player, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. Recently, she said, the coach entered while a player was in the shower, with no curtain, and “my teammates had to yell at him to get out.”
She hasn’t reported the alleged incident to university officials. Nor has anyone else complained since May, university officials said.
The Star does not identify the alleged victims of sexual harassment unless they agree to be named. Their parents are not named in this story to protect the women’s identities.
Even though the players have moved on from UMKC, their parents are still fuming. They expected the coach would be punished.
“The parents encouraged the girls to tell someone about this,” said the mother of a former player. “They were afraid to say anything, but we told them that in today’s ‘Me Too’ environment they would be protected. Then when they do talk, nobody does anything.
“They gave him a microwave. That was devastating. The girls needed to know that somebody cared.”
Handling the complaints
When Mikah Thompson, then UMKC’s Title IX officer, first heard the players’ complaints, she thought they were describing behavior that could “possibly be” sexual harassment.
She would soon change her mind after talking to Bachkora.
Bachkora admitted that he went into the locker room “multiple times” — sometimes for the microwave and sometimes for equipment — but said the women were always dressed and he always announced his presence, Thompson wrote in her report to the university’s human resources department.
The women told The Star his announcements came only after he was in the room.
Thompson said Bachkora, 34, admitted he kissed players on the forehead or cheek but in a “fatherly, non-sexual manner.” He also confessed to the joke about female genitalia.
Thompson wrote that she found Bachkora’s explanations to be credible and that she did not recommend disciplinary action because she “believed the conversation and notation in the Office of Affirmative Action records served as a sufficient warning.” The Title IX report would be placed in his employment file. The university emailed The Star a redacted version.
She wrote that because Bachkora “admitted that he had engaged in the alleged conduct, there was no need to conduct a formal investigation of the allegations.”
Thompson outlined the school’s response to the complaints against Bachkora in an email to one of the players. She said Bachkora had been told the joke was offensive. And she explained to Bachkora that “conduct which may seem innocent to him might offend others and that many players might feel uncomfortable if their coach kissed them.”
Bachkora “understands that he needs to maintain boundaries with the players and avoid touching them unnecessarily.”
Officials advised him that when he needs equipment, he should send a female graduate assistant into the locker room. Thompson wrote that the UMKC athletic department had “agreed to purchase a microwave” for him and other staff to use in a common area so no one would need to enter the locker room to use it.
The location of the old microwave was “a problem,” Thompson later told The Star, adding that “he probably shouldn’t be in there using it.”
In her email to the player, Thompson also wrote that the coach “was genuinely surprised to hear this feedback, and I hope he will use it to improve.” She closed by telling the player to contact her “if anything like this happens again.”
“I was shocked when I got the email,” the player’s mother said. A microwave and a talk, she said, did not seem much like discipline.
Thompson, now a UMKC associate law professor, defended how she dealt with the coach’s behavior.
“I’m thinking that it is inappropriate, I’m thinking this is something that shouldn’t be happening,” Thompson said. But, she added, “There wasn’t a moment where I put a label on it and said, this is definitely sexual harassment within the policy definition.”
Thompson said that university policy allows for a range of discipline to be meted out when accusations are substantiated, from a verbal reprimand to termination.
“I felt like it was handled properly,” she said.
Players and parents see it differently. One father said that because Bachkora was still coaching, his daughter felt compelled to leave the university and play softball elsewhere.
“She didn’t want to leave UMKC but when they said they weren’t going to do anything about him, she had no choice,” he said.
In mid-December, months after the three women had left the softball program, one of the players received a phone call from an athletic department official asking if UMKC had “taken good care of them,” the player’s father said.
Listening in, the father confronted the official about his daughter having been sexually harassed at UMKC and the university “did nothing about it.”
“I believe in my mind that kind of behavior from any coach is wrong,” a current player said. “I don’t believe they deserve to be coaching young women.”
Bachkora, who is from Lee’s Summit and has been with the UMKC softball program since September 2016, did not return a message from The Star. University officials said that on the advice of their attorneys, neither Bachkora nor head coach Meredith Smith Neal would comment for this story.
One player said that Neal had reached out to team members last month and asked them not to talk with The Star for this story. The player also said Bachkora implored them to say positive things about him if The Star contacted them.
Some current and former players did defend Bachkora, saying they had never felt uncomfortable around him.
One said that most of the time he had been very helpful to the team. But she said she left the school because she wasn’t happy with the “coaching style at UMKC.”
Other supporters of the coach said they did not want to be a part of this story.
A different incident
When UMKC responded recently to The Star’s request for comment on the sexual harassment case, officials emailed Thompson’s redacted Title IX report — and a second, unexpected document.
It was a summary of disciplinary action the athletic department had taken last spring against six softball players for their involvement in an alcohol-related incident. The document identifies three of those players involved as the ones who later complained about Bachkora.
Experts contacted by The Star say the release of that document violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which prohibits a college or university from sharing certain information about students, including sexual harassment complaints and disciplinary records.
“This definitely violates FERPA,” said Amelia Vance, an education-data privacy expert with the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit group of lawyers based in Washington, D.C.
According to the document the university released, in March 2018 the six players had taken high school recruits, who were on an official visit to UMKC, to an off-campus party where alcohol was consumed.
“Some of the high school students and their parents later reported the incident to UMKC,” the document said. In April, the six players were suspended from the team indefinitely. Some of the women, including the three players who complained about Bachkora in May, eventually left the university. Others were reinstated.
Vance said that sharing disciplinary information about the players “might have been someone being really dumb.”
But Vance’s colleague at the Privacy Forum, lawyer Sara Collins, called the move intentional.
“This was a classic retaliation Title IX case,” Collins said. “This was the university’s attempt, in my opinion, to retaliate against the girls for filing a report against their coach. So egregious. This is incredibly serious and quite malicious.”
University officials said that releasing the details did not violate federal law because none of the women were identified by name.
But that doesn’t matter, according to Vance.
“Even though they redacted the names, because they knew that (The Star) knew who the girls were, it violates FERPA,” she said. And it doesn’t matter that the students had left the university.
Because the disciplinary report only deals with six of the 13 players who were on the team last year, Vance said such a small and specific group makes the women easily identifiable.
The three players say they did not complain about Bachkora to get back at the university for their punishment the previous month. Another player told The Star that long before the party incident, she and other teammates had formed “a friend pact” to list problems and eventually complain to athletic officials about Bachkora’s behavior.
Players and their parents believe the university released details about the alcohol incident to discredit them and imply their complaint was retribution for having been disciplined.
“It’s a load of (expletive),” one player told The Star. “It makes me so mad.”
She said the only reason other members of the team have not complained is “they are afraid. They are afraid to use their voice. I’m not.”
The mother of another player said her daughter’s complaint “has nothing to do with” the reprimand from the university. “The fact that the girls were leaving is what gave them the strength to say something about what was going on,” the mother said. “I am appalled that that is their response.
“What, should we give him a pass to come in and look at 18-, 19-, 20-year-old women because of some previous alcohol incident? How can the university defend that? This would never happen in the real world. … No one is tolerating that any more.”