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Report: Hernando coach touched student sexually

BROOKSVILLE — At least one Hernando High School student has claimed that former coach Eric Riggins touched her in a sexual manner on two occasions, according to investigative documents released Thursday by the school district.

Riggins, 31, resigned May 5 as a classroom aide and assistant coach for track and football amid reports of a criminal investigation into possible inappropriate contact with students.

Just three days earlier, Hernando Schools officials had recommended his firing, according to documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times under state open records laws.

That followed a district investigation into reports that Riggins had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a student, and that he had visited students' hotel rooms during a night of post-prom partying in Clearwater. Riggins was suspended with pay. Another coach involved in the April 5 prom night incident, Brent Mobley, was fired April 21.

According to the newly released documents, Riggins first touched the student in February during an in-school suspension at the school.

"On the day when I had ISS, for dress code (violation) on 2/21/08, Coach Riggins had asked me if I was a virgin and I told him yes," the student wrote. "At the end of the school day, I was the last one to leave ISS and he touched me inappropriately. He reached around from the back of me on the left side and reached under my skirt and touched my private parts. I then left ISS."

The student said he touched her in the same way in a storage room near the athletic fields, and made sexually suggestive comments in an evening phone call. In each case, she discouraged his advances, hanging up the phone following the inappropriate comments, she said.

Riggins could not be reached for comment Thursday. But his attorney, Laguerra G. Champagne, has told the Hernando Today newspaper that he denies any wrongdoing.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office has refused to confirm or deny if it is investigating Riggins. But a teachers' union official has said deputies have interviewed dozens of students as part of a criminal investigation.

The documents, which include written statements from 21 students, provide a vivid glimpse into the night of post-prom partying that prompted the district's initial investigation. All student names were deleted in the copy provided to the Times.

Several students said Riggins and Mobley entered their hotel rooms and expressed interest in joining the celebration.

"Mr. Mobley and Mr. Riggins had been texting ... on the way down to Clearwater after prom, saying that they were coming to party with us," one student wrote. "Later in our hotel room, I was walking out of the bathroom and Riggins and Mobley were standing in the room. They didn't say anything and left after a few minutes."

In an interview with professional standards director Barbara Kidder and School Board attorney Paul Carland, Riggins denied visiting students' rooms, but admitted seeing students outside three hotels and speaking to several through a chained door.

But the district investigation soon moved to reports of incidents involving students before prom night.

In one April 29 document from the investigation, Kidder described a phone call with a parent.

"Mrs. _____ confirmed that in fact there had been physical contact" between Riggins and her daughter, Kidder wrote. "She did not describe the nature of the contact."

Prior legal troubles

It's not the first time Riggins has faced legal problems.

In 1998, he was arrested on a charge of burglary with assault, after forcing his way into a former girlfriend's home and threatening to kill her, according to court documents.

He eventually pleaded no contest to the lesser charge of aggravated assault, a third-degree felony, and was sentenced to five years' probation with adjudication withheld.

He was arrested in 2000 on charges of trying to sell marijuana to an undercover deputy, but charges were dropped due to a witness problem.

That record initially prompted the Florida Department of Education to deny Riggins' application for a coaching certificate, but in 2007 he was given a provisional certificate under a settlement agreement. He was first hired in Hernando in 2003, serving as an aide at the alternative school and coaching at Nature Coast Technical High.

Hernando officials say they tightened their screening standards in 2005 to comply with the Jessica Lunsford Act, but employees hired before that time were not subjected to the tougher requirements.

Under those guidelines, Riggins' no-contest plea to aggravated assault would disqualify him from working for the Hernando Schools, Carland said.

"Under my leadership, I think the county looks much more closely at people," superintendent Wayne Alexander said last month. "We don't do things that way any more."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Report: Hernando coach touched student sexually 05/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 1:07pm]
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