Surveillance cameras in dressing rooms are prompting parents to pull children from South Burlington’s youth football teams

A sports equipment storage facility is used as a changing area for the youth football program at Jaycee Park in South Burlington. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After learning that a four-camera video system was recording footage of a facility being used as a locker room, a group of parents pulled their children from a youth football program in South Burlington.

The fallout has pitted supporters of a longtime community football coach against those who say he has crossed a line, including former volunteer coaches – one of whom said the situation has prompted an exodus of the coaching staff.

Hayden Dodge is among parents – who she estimates there are at least 20 – to cut ties with the South Burlington Dolphins’ youth football program. Dodge, who has enrolled her children in the program for the past five years, said she’s not out to hurt anyone’s reputation but does find the presence of cameras in the dressing room disturbing.

“We just don’t want to play for the Dolphins anymore,” she said. “I understand (if) there are cameras on the outside of the building… something like that. I totally understand. I never thought there would be one in the dressing room.”

Following a report last October from a concerned parent, South Burlington Police spoke to one of the team’s coaches, who said he noticed the camera system and unplugged it, according to a police report. This prompted police to pay a visit to the facility, which is owned by longtime head coach Rene LaBerge.

The building is divided into two rooms: one for players in grades 1-4 and one for players in grades 5-8. According to LaBerge, the cameras are filming on both sides of the partition.

“Nobody changes to (nothing),” LaBerge told VTDigger. “Everyone wears shorts. It’s not like a high school locker room or anything like that.”

The South Burlington Police Department concluded its investigation in May and found that “nothing despicable is going on,” said Shawn Burke, the city’s police chief.

During the investigation, LaBerge told police the cameras were installed to prevent equipment theft and to protect his investment in the program, Burke said.

It was the second time in a decade that South Burlington police were investigating a complaint about cameras monitoring a dolphin’s dressing room. A 2012 complaint, also filed by a concerned parent, was dropped after police concluded there was no evidence of a crime, according to the police report.

In the most recent case, a police officer conducting an extensive review of DVR footage from the locker rooms found videos of parents going into the facility to help younger players put on their gear, but found that the older players ” unattended at times” were undressing – in some cases down to their underwear – to put on equipment.

Police did not find any cases on tape where children undressed completely, Burke said.

“That’s not to say there wasn’t an instance (of full undressing) that was once overridden,” Burke said. “DVRs only store so much data before they start overwriting.”

LaBerge said there’s a non-camera bathroom that the kids use when they need to fully undress.

Police found no footage of LaBerge accessing the surveillance DVR system. According to Burke, there was also no evidence that the recordings had been tampered with.

“It was not like we found any evidence that LaBerge was trying to cover up nefarious activities or anything related,” the chief said.

Still, police said they advised LaBerge to be more clear to parents about the presence of cameras in the locker room. “Beyond the signage posted in this garage area, any pamphlets or handbooks for parents related to the program should probably state this explicitly,” Burke said.

“Is it the best practice? Probably not,” Burke said. “In consultation with (the Vermont Department for Children and Families) we don’t really feel anything is afoot here and the detectives will simply consult with the DA’s office to ensure they corroborate our position.”

“Do not accept complaints”

Although Dodge said she was unaware of the cameras prior to the investigation, LaBerge said he is letting players know. He said no parent has ever personally raised concerns with him about his use of cameras in the dressing room.

“There are just some people who scold me for what I did,” LaBerge said. “It’s no secret. It’s been there forever.”

Dubbed the Locker Room, the facility is located on LaBerge’s property, which is on the west side of Jaycee Park on Williston Road, where the dolphins train. It’s essentially a car and a half garage where players can dress up their gear and store gear.

“They call it a locker room, but it’s like a garage with storage racks and all youth football gear is kept in that room,” Burke said.

LaBerge told VTDigger that there is $30,000 to $50,000 worth of equipment in the room he wants to protect, adding that the cameras are also used to keep the kids safe in the event of a fight or break-in .

“Nobody ever accesses it and (the police) can see it and I told them that. If anything happens, I just hand them the camera,” LaBerge said.

“You can no longer have facilities without cameras,” he said. “The coaches are 150 meters away on the field, which is about 100 meters away. Something happens in that locker room or kids fight or someone walks in there, no one has any idea what’s going on.”

But in his more than five decades as a coach, LaBerge said he’s never had a problem with fights or break-ins in his locker room.

LaBerge said he believes the extra security is also needed due to incidents in the area, where he said six cars were broken into over a recent weekend. He said his RV had been broken into twice and his private car had been attacked at least three times in the past three months.

Burke, the police chief, said the cameras were “obviously” in place with signage in place – although children are often not as aware of such cues as parents are.

“All these kids are young, right? And they don’t think about those things,” Burke said. “I’m a parent of a couple of physical education students myself and I don’t think about it until they’re 18.”

But like Dodge, Sam Jackson, a former trainer, said he was unaware of the presence of cameras and didn’t notice the signage. According to Jackson, the entire six-man volunteer coaching team left the program after last fall’s football season after learning about the locker room cameras and finding the practice inappropriate.

Jackson said the coaches left because they didn’t want to be involved with an organization that would condone or insist on such a practice. He said LaBerge resisted taking complaints seriously last fall, insisting he had nothing to do with the cameras even though they were on his private property.

However, LaBerge tells a different version of events and says he let the coaches go because he didn’t like their coaching methods.

LaBerge, who was a finalist for USA Today’s Best of Humankind Awards last fall, said those who claimed to be upset were “upset” and out to ruin his reputation.

Jackson and Dodge both denied that this was the case.

LaBerge still has support in the community where he has coached youth football for generations.

Stacey Savage’s husband was a coach for about two decades, and she’s been a “team mom” for most of that time. During those years, she said, the cameras were never an issue, and she believes those who are complaining now are “grabbing at straws.”

“It was inflated disproportionately,” Savage said, adding that the situation was “heartbreaking.”

“Rene is a great guy. He gave his life to this football team. He never showed bad character or anything like that. He was just respectful to me, my family, my son, my daughter. It’s sad to see someone trying to destroy something just out of spite.”

LaBerge said it broke his heart that people questioned his ethics and character.

“I put 55 years of my life into this,” LaBerge said. “If there was something that really hurts the kids, nothing like that would happen around me. I raised about – I don’t know how many – some of them actually lived in my house over the years because they didn’t have a place to go or needed some extra love.”

For her part, Dodge said she would never have allowed her child to change in the presence of a recording camera if she had known she was there. While Dodge acknowledges that it’s doubtful the kids are fully undressed there, she still thinks the presence of cameras in the dressing room is inappropriate and too close to “pornographic.”

“At the end of the day, they switch to football,” she said. “There wasn’t anything I signed that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have pictures of your kid in their underwear.'”

Dodge wants the tape erased. LaBerge said he never looks at the tape and has no intention of tampering with it now, but said the footage will be overwritten over time.

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