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Police: Clearwater wrestling coach accused of hitting students had a history of similar claims

Scott Stern, 45, coached at Clearwater Central Catholic High.
Published Oct. 23, 2014

After catching the student smoking a cigarette, Scott Stern told him he had three options.

Stern could call his mother, or the boy could choose the hard way or the mental way, according to police records.

On that morning in 1998, the Pinellas Park High student chose the mental way. He later told police Stern ordered him to strip naked, hold a ruler on his head, and called him an idiot, records state.

Prosecutors declined to file charges against Stern, who was subsequently hired by two different schools in Pinellas County as wrestling coach.

Now, Stern faces two counts of battery and is accused of assaulting two students he forced to strip naked inside Clearwater Central Catholic High School, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said.

Stern, 45, was released on $1,000 bail Tuesday night. A man who answered his phone Wednesday referred a reporter to his attorney, Rex Blake.

"We look forward to defending him against these accusations," Blake said, "and he looks forward to restoring his reputation."

In 1999, Denise Hart, the school principal at the time, met with a Pinellas Park police officer when a student told his teachers he was missing class because he felt "uncomfortable" around Stern, a wrestling team volunteer.

The officer interviewed the boy and Stern, who told the officer he did make the student hold the ruler on his head, but denied making him strip.

"What I told him to do was something I do … to prove a point," Stern wrote in a statement to school officials. "I will have someone hold a stick, ruler, or shoe or something over their head until their arms are too tired to hold it, and then I will hold it for them and explain that we all have to try and stop things from falling on us and sometimes we need help."

Investigators forwarded their investigation to the State Attorney's Office, but prosecutors declined to file a child abuse charge against him.

Stern was hired in 2000 as the wrestling team's coach, school records show.

Jill Dileanis, the athletic director at the time, declined to comment Wednesday.

When reached by phone, Hart, who retired eight years ago, said she did not recall the investigation.

"He was a popular coach," she said, "and that's about all I can say I remember about him."

Said school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra in an email: "It is possible he was eligible for employment at the time because the police investigation did not lead to charges or a conviction."

Stern later resigned from Pinellas Park High in 2003 while under investigation for treating two students for medical ailments, including with a prescription cream sample, without a medical license, Parra said.

The case was referred to the State Attorney's Office, added Parra. According to public records, no charges were filed.

Stern's Pinellas personnel record was not available for review Wednesday.

Despite the two previous investigations, he was hired at Clearwater Central Catholic High School and was wrestling coach for more than a decade until the Sheriff's Office received an anonymous tip Oct. 6 about Stern's disciplinary tactics.

Detectives interviewed several students, including two who told them Stern had physically abused them because he suspected they were involved in drugs.

An 18-year-old student said that sometime in February, Stern forced him to take off his clothes, grabbed him by the throat and groin, and yelled at him, the Sheriff's Office said.

Another student, who is 17, said Stern abused him on several occasions between August 2013 and May. The teen told investigators that Stern forced him to strip naked and struck his buttocks with a ruler and his hand.

Stern resigned while the Sheriff's Office inquiry was ongoing. Frank Murphy, Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg spokesman, said Stern was screened twice during his time with the school, but other than some traffic-related charges, "nothing showed up."

Several former CCC wrestlers did not return phone calls and messages for comment Wednesday.

"Coach Scott is a great man," said one former wrestler, Nicholas deNyse, before hanging up on a reporter, "and none of these accusations are true."

Times staff researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

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