Home Mailbag: Readers weigh in on Shonn Bell-Waynesboro High School football story
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Mailbag: Readers weigh in on Shonn Bell-Waynesboro High School football story

Chris Graham
shonn bell
Photo: Waynesboro Schools

One AFP reader is under the impression that our coverage of the Shonn Bell-Waynesboro High School football coach story is “to distract everyone from the teacher being arrested on school property for indecent liberties with a minor under 13 on school property.”

That was Chanda McGuffin, the co-founder of RISE, a Waynesboro-based civil-rights nonprofit, commenting on the AFP Facebook page.

“That’s what they need to concentrate on. This literally just happened,” McGuffin wrote.

The truth on that: no, we’re not covering the story about Bell to distract everyone from the April 24 arrest of Joseph Emmanuel Trust, 38, of Stuarts Draft, which we were the first in the local media to write about.

We don’t work for the school system or the City of Waynesboro, which seems to be what McGuffin would be implying by saying our reporting on Shonn Bell is an effort to “distract” people from the teacher arrest story.

Believe it or not, we can report on more than one story at a time here.

The issue with Trust is making its way through the local court system, and in the wake of the arrest, Trust is no longer in local schools, and assuming the court case plays out the way it seems it might, he never will be again.

The issue with Bell is still unresolved, which is why we’ve been giving it continued attention.

Background

To reset the story for those who may be reading about the matter for the first time: Bell, a Waynesboro native, was hired on April 18 to be the new football coach at Waynesboro High School, and he was also hired as a security officer at the high school.

On May 3, a parent reached out to AFP, after having already reached out to Waynesboro Public Schools and the Waynesboro School Board, with information about Bell’s arrest record, which dates to a 1993 rape charge while he was a student-athlete at Clinch Valley College, now UVA-Wise, two convictions in 2009 and 2010 on resisting arrest and DUI charges, and a 2016 drug case that was later dropped.

We were able to confirm those through public-records searches, and also found information about ongoing child-support payment cases that were active as of the fall of 2023.

The critics

I get it that people don’t read every word of every story, but some of the comments on the coverage of this story on social media are … they are what they are, is all I can think to say.

“If charges were dismissed that means there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty,” reader Andy Painter wrote. “That charge shouldn’t follow him the rest of his life. A lot of innocent people get charged. If its dismissed, it should be like it never happened.”

Painter is referencing the rape and drug charges there. At least Painter seems to recognize the difference between “there wasn’t enough evidence to find him guilty” and “it should be like it never happened,” even as he tries to reinforce the second part.

“Dismissed means it’s NOT on his resume……. So why mention it?” reader Abe Turner wrote. “I think an elementary school student wrote this article. Good on this man for trying to do right by his community. Especially with a coaching shortage when it comes to qualified applicants.”

“There’s no controversy from what I’ve heard,” reader Jim Belcher wrote. “You and those trying to create controversy might think hard about WHY you need to single him out for old transgressions any of us who have experienced life probably have done equal or worse but, as is the very definition of living, learned from AND paid dues for. He’s probably better for it. I stand by his hiring and abhor media and personal negativity and undermining.”

“When he starts winning they let it go,” reader Roger Gregoire wrote. “People make mistakes and go through bad times don’t mean that’s who they are today. He did his time and he’s different today then who he was younger.”

“For all of the negative comments. let someone take a look at what you did at 18, 19 years old! People change, unfortunately some here are still stuck in the past. Move forward…please,” reader Marcus Stewart wrote.

“I normally don’t speak out but whomever trying to ruin this young guy character from 30 years ago, may we see your record please. Maybe you didn’t get caught but I bet you have a record,” reader Tampa Stuart wrote.

This should be obvious, but …

shonn bell iowa Bell was 34 in 2009 and 35 in 2010 when he pleaded guilty to the resisting arrest and DUI charges. He was 49 when his most recent child-support case was in court in 2023.

Not “30 years ago.” Not “18, 19 years old.”

And not “single(d) out.”

Again, I don’t expect people to read every word of every story, and, same, I don’t expect people to read every story, but we write about a lot here, every day, including the football coach story, including the teacher arrested for sexual assault of a minor, including the teacher at an Augusta County high school with the anti-government tattoos.

Including the Waynesboro vice mayor who used an anti-gay slur to refer to a government official that the city was asking to approve a federal grant.

Including the county board of supervisors, who we took to court because they illegally held a closed meeting to cover up a lengthy discussion of the resignation of a former member of the board over sexual-harassment allegations.

We’re still keeping tabs on the board of supervisors, and the vice mayor, who decided after we broke the story on his slur decided to remove years of podcasts from an online archive.

We’re also keeping up with the painfully slow investigation into two members of the board of supervisors who allegedly tried to get a state employee fired because the employee spoke out against the county on a local animal-control issue.

If you read about those matters at all, it’s because we reported on them first, and because we keep the foot on the gas pedal to make sure that stuff like this doesn’t get swept under the rug.

This is what news people are supposed to do

Reporting on uncomfortable news is part of the job, and let me be clear on that, the Shonn Bell story is uncomfortable news.

I say that because, I can agree with most of the point made by another AFP reader, Cassandra Crawford-Taylor, on how Bell’s troubled past, including a troubled recent past, and even present, can be a benefit.

“He will be the best leader for the young men and women,” Crawford-Taylor wrote. “Sometimes it takes life changing experiences to put you w(h)ere you need to be later in life to be the best mentor from real life things…those young men will respect and look up to him… we have all made poor choices in life but it has brought us the greatest gifts! These young men will feel free to talk to him not only about football! He’s already been punished for his actions we don’t need to continue doing so!!”

The only part that I’d quibble with is the “punished” part.

Writing about Bell’s past isn’t an effort to “punish” him; it’s to inform – that’s it.

Waynesboro Public Schools and the Waynesboro School Board have informed us that they knew about Bell’s past when the decision was made to hire him, so, credit due, they’re owning that part of the story.

They knew, and now because of our reporting, the community knows.

There was a divide on whether Bell should have been hired even before we first reported on this story; now because of our reporting, the community at large is also pretty well-aware of that.

Moving forward

Me personally, I wouldn’t have made the hire, and that’s nothing against Shonn Bell as a person.

I don’t think a school system should put a person with a record that would seem to indicate a series of bad choices dating back more than 30 years and continuing to the present day in a school setting.

If it’s me in the HR office, he doesn’t even get a callback.

Now that Bell is in the employ of the school system, though, I would be shocked if there is any move to remove him from the two jobs that he’s been hired for.

Assuming that to be the case, I’ll be hoping, like Crawford-Taylor, that Bell can use his experiences not only as a former NAIA All-American and NFL and Arena League player, but also as somebody who has had to deal with the fallout of a series of bad decisions, to steer the kids that he’ll interact with in Waynesboro in the right direction.

Outside of that, I think the community has a right to inquire about the hiring process and the decision that was ultimately made, particularly in light of the other recent controversy that McGuffin thinks, ridiculously, that we’re trying to cover up with the teacher sex-assault case.

Being blunt here, those folks need to do better when it comes to vetting candidates for employment.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].