DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. -- A principal texted words of support to a teacher now facing felony charges of sexual exploitation of a student, a Denver7 investigation reveals.
The text messages, first uncovered by Denver7 Investigates, detail a seemingly close relationship between Douglas County High School principal Tony Kappas and former English teacher and softball coach Brian Stebbins.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office arrested Stebbins in June over allegations he exchanged sexually explicit photos and videos with a minor student – allegations Stebbins reportedly admitted to in an interview with sheriff’s investigators.
The text exchanges, obtained by Denver7 through a Colorado Open Records Act request for messages on the principal’s school district-issued phone, show the embattled teacher and the principal remained in communication while the teacher was on administrative leave as the sheriff’s office investigated the serious allegations against him.
The principal wrote repeatedly of “playing phone tag” with the sheriff’s detective investigating the case, and wrote about intentions to update Stebbins with the information he learned from the investigator.
Sources who worked for the school when Stebbins was arrested question whether an apparent friendship between the principal and the teacher influenced the decision to delay notification to parents about the criminal case.
“There's a double standard going on for this teacher,” said one former school employee, who asked to keep her identity hidden out of fear of retribution.
But the district explained that it held back the information from parents only out of concern that sharing news of the arrest may compromise the investigation.
“Making sure that the victim and her family are able to have an uncompromised investigation and are able to get justice is paramount … these are extremely serious charges. Nobody wants this to be screwed up,” Douglas County’s interim school superintendent Erin Kane explained.
“Stay strong buddy”
Records show Douglas County High School put Stebbins on administrative leave March 27, days after the administration received a complaint from a parent about the teacher.
“This morning felt awful,” Stebbins texted the principal that day. “To have someone tell me I couldn't be in my room hurt bad.”
“I can only imagine. It’s tearing me up also just so you know,” Kappas responded. “So sorry. Stay strong buddy.”
The texts showed the principal remained in conversation with the suspect through the end of the school year, with Stebbins continuing to grade papers for his class during his absence, and often asking the principal when he could return to work.
Kappas repeatedly responded he and other district officials were calling the sheriff’s office seeking updates.
“Playing phone tag with the detective. No new news at this point,” Kappas wrote on March 31. “I will let you know if and when I hear anything else.”
On April 2, Kappas wrote, “I left multiple messages with the detective and played phone tag until late into Friday night. So I’m hoping something breaks tomorrow.”
On April 5:
“I am too but I am trying to give it to God and trust the process,” Stebbins responded.
A second source close to the school’s initial investigation of Stebbins, who also requested anonymity, said school administrators including Kappas were among the first to be informed of allegations the coach was having an inappropriate relationship with a minor student. The school then turned the investigation over to the sheriff’s office.
“The district cooperated fully and is cooperating fully with an ongoing investigation, and will continue to cooperate fully with that investigation,” interim superintendent Kane said. “We’ve made sure that we’re in constant communication with law enforcement and that we’re providing whatever they need us to provide.”
State documents show the sheriff’s office interviewed a student in April who was a friend of Stebbins’ reported victim. The student said the victim sent several nude or partially nude photos of herself to Stebbins, and Stebbins responded by sending videos of his exposed genitals.
The same day as that interview, April 6, Stebbins texted Kappas and informed him that human resources gave him permission to attend a play as long as he did not discuss “the situation” with students.
According to the state board of education’s order to suspend Stebbins’ teaching license, Stebbins admitted to sheriff’s investigators on April 19 to sending photos of his exposed genitals to the student, as well as admitting to receiving partially nude photos of the teen girl.
After that reported admission, Stebbins continued grading papers for his students, texting Kappas on May 24, “All grades are posted and final for me.”
Records show the sheriff’s office moved to file charges against Stebbins on May 31 and the teacher turned himself in on Friday, June 2. He posted bond and left jail on Monday, June 5.
Denver7 Investigates requested emails and text messages sent by school and district administrators days after news of the softball coach’s arrest broke.
The district initially denied the request for text messages, claiming it does not maintain records of texts. But when Denver7 reiterated a request for texts sent on district-issued phones, several district and school administrators apparently took screen grabs of their own texts involving the teacher, including Kappas, and relayed them to the district for release.
The school district’s interim superintendent said she reviewed all the text messages and said it appeared to her the principal’s motivation was to make sure Stebbins’ AP English students would be prepared for their upcoming exam.
“What I saw was a principal who was putting his kids first,” Kane said. “The reason he was in touch with Mr. Stebbins to begin with is those AP English students and making sure that they have the continuity of curriculum and that they had the ability to be successful on the AP exam. … There’s no information about the investigation itself being shared in those text messages.”
The district declined to say whether the principal would be disciplined for the texts he sent, calling it a private personnel matter. Kane said the district would examine whether any policies need to be changed in light of the issues raised by this case.
Parents kept in the dark until the arrest “hit the presses”
Stebbins posted bond to leave jail on Monday, June 5, the same day records show the district’s public information officer Paula Hans received a text stating the teacher was in custody.
Douglas County High School did not send any notification to parents about the teacher’s arrest until June 8, when Denver7 Investigates received a call to our tip line about the arrest and called the district to confirm Stebbins’ arrest.
Texts obtained from another administrator show Kappas sent a message to school leadership to let them know the media was calling about the arrest:
Kane said the district worked with the sheriff’s office to make a decision on when to notify parents and denied knowing whether Denver7's calls prompted the school's decision to send an email to families.
“We work closely with law enforcement and make that decision together,” Kane said. “[Parents] would have known about the arrest as soon as the sheriff’s office felt that it would not compromise their ongoing criminal investigation.”
There appeared to be no paper trail detailing any sheriff's office requests to keep the information from parents, and a high-ranking source in the sheriff's office said investigators did not make such a request after Stebbins was arrested.
This is the second high-profile arrest of a school employee on sexual charges this year involving school districts who did not immediately notify parents. Denver7 Investigates was first to reveal that Grandview High School and Cherry Creek School District did not send any notification to parents about the May arrest of security guard Broderick Lundie on charges he sexually assaulted a student.
Former teacher and principal decline to answer questions
Douglas County Schools declined to make Kappas available for an interview, citing the ongoing criminal case against Stebbins. So Denver7’s chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski went to the school to ask the principal about his decisions.
Kappas refused to talk, saying he was on his way to a football game, and referring Kovaleski to email his secretary to arrange an appointment. The school district then again declined Denver7’s request to interview Kappas.
Brian Stebbins also declined to answer questions about any preferential treatment he may have received during the sheriff's investigation and questions about the text exchange with principal Kappas after a court appearance on Sep. 14.
He waived his right to a preliminary hearing and is set to be arraigned on Oct. 23. Court records show he has not yet entered a plea in the case.
Colorado state law does not currently require school districts to notify parents about the arrests of teachers and school employees. The Denver7 Investigates team is working to shed light in the days and weeks ahead on additional cases of parents being left in the dark about arrests. If you know something Denver7 should know, email Tony@TheDenverChannel.com or call our tip line at (303) 832-TIPS, or text our team at (720) 618-4812.