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Penn State fencing coach failed to report assistant who groped, harassed woman on plane, complaint alleges

After separate investigations by Penn State and an independent nonprofit that monitors abuse in college sports, longtime coach Wes Glon remains in his position. His former assistant, George “Gia” Abashidze, was fired.

Penn State University assistant coach George Abashidze,  on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016.
Penn State University assistant coach George Abashidze, on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016.Read moreNick Thomas / The Daily Collegian

On its own, the accusation was stunning: In 2018, a veteran head coach of a Division 1 sports team was told that one of his assistants had grabbed and sexually harassed a woman — and the coach didn’t report it to the university as required.

Even more stunning may be the school involved: Pennsylvania State University.

The allegation had nothing to do with Penn State’s storied football program, nor mirrored the serial child-sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky that upended college sports and led to more than $100 million in civil payouts, new reporting requirements, and criminal sentences for administrators who failed to act on Sandusky’s suspected misconduct.

In the 2018 case, the sport was fencing. And ultimately Penn State fired the alleged harasser.

But to the accuser, a North Carolina fencing coach named Jennifer Oldham, the university’s response didn’t go far enough. Even after separate investigations by Penn State and an independent nonprofit that monitors abuse in Olympic sports, the longtime head fencing coach who suppressed her harassment complaint, Wes Glon, appears unscathed. In fact, he was recognized at a Penn State board of trustees meeting this month when one of his athletes was honored.

The significance isn’t lost on Oldham. The Sandusky case and its aftermath was an early spark in what became a wave of acknowledgment — later advanced by the #metoo movement — about the mishandling of sexual harassment and sexual abuse complaints on campuses. Around the country, universities have instituted reforms to ensure accusations are reported and properly investigated.

“Especially because of Penn State’s history, I thought he would have reported it,” Oldham told The Inquirer in an interview. “They say they’ve had all this training, all this awareness, and yet this happened."

Penn State spokesperson Lawrence Lokman said the university investigated Glon’s conduct but he declined to comment on the internal probe or say if it led to disciplinary action. He noted employees receive training on policies they must follow, including a requirement that all coaches report harassment-related complaints.

According to an internal Penn State report that summarized its investigation and was obtained by The Inquirer, Glon had deemed Oldham’s accusation “difficult to believe.” Reached by phone and approached in person at the trustees’ meeting, Glon declined to comment.

Last month, Oldham and her lawyer, Kerry Sutton, filed a formal complaint with Penn State over the head coach’s handling of her accusation, hoping it would spur the university to take the issue of his failure to report more seriously. They’re also considering legal action.

“I thought it was obvious this was wrong," she said in an interview.

A National Contender

Though lacking the spotlight other sports receive in State College, fencing is still a big deal at Penn State. The coed team for years has been a national contender — Penn State awards fencing scholarships — and this year was runner-up for the national championship. Glon, 65, has been on the coaching staff for more than three decades, and head coach since 2013.

Oldham, 44, has fewer years of experience but has also made her mark in the sport. The North Carolina native began her fencing career as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was on the varsity women’s foil squad. She went on to train and compete internationally. She also has coached international medalists.

On Dec. 11, 2017, she boarded a red-eye flight from Portland, Ore., to Chicago with a group of fencing coaches returning from a competition. Oldham found herself sitting next to a Penn State assistant coach, George “Gia” Abashidze.

Abashidze, a native of the Eastern European country Georgia, had been coaching at Penn State since 2009 and before that at Ohio State. He’s coached several Olympians and coached the Georgian National Fencing team. Oldham had talked to him casually at competitions in the past and said she never had a problem. Abashidze, then 60, had expertise in foil fencing, which she was interested in learning more about.

Abashidze appeared to be inebriated when he got on the plane, one passenger, Lewis Vaden, would later tell investigators. Then Abashidze bought drinks — two for himself and two for Oldham. It didn’t take long, Oldham said, for Abashidze to begin making comments of a sexual nature and inappropriate remarks about his wife and former students.

Oldham said she calmly tried to steer the conversation back to fencing, not wanting to make a scene. She had encountered chauvinistic behavior before in a sport dominated by men, and thought she could handle it.

But Abashidze, she said, became more aggressive as the flight continued. He touched her arm, her knee, and her upper leg, she said. Again and again, he asked her to have sex.

“The part that I felt was crossing the line completely,” Oldham said in an interview, “was when he wasn’t just asking me to have sex. He was insisting on having sex, begging me to have sex, creating and visualizing different ways we could have sex. And [saying] he was going to die if we couldn’t have sex.”

He then grabbed her crotch, she said.

Oldham said she nudged awake Vaden, the New Jersey fencing supply company vendor sitting next to her, in a bid for help. But Abashidze persisted for another 30 to 40 minutes, while Oldham tried to defuse the situation before they landed.

As they got off the plane, Vaden noticed Abashidze following Oldham and asked a mutual friend to intervene and get the Penn State coach away from her.

A Decision to Act

As Oldham left the airport in shock, she said her mind was racing: This is not acceptable. What can I do to change this? Is this why there are so few women in this sport? How would disclosing the incident affect her reputation in the sports world? She knew that couldn’t be her primary concern. It was as Michigan State University was reeling from allegations that its longtime physician, Larry Nassar, the national Olympics gymnastics coach, had assaulted girls and young women for decades.

Oldham decided she had to say something.

She asked Vaden to report what he witnessed on the plane to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a Denver-based nonprofit that had been launched in 2017 to identify and reduce misconduct in Olympic sports. SafeSport agreed to investigate.

She also reached out to Ed Korfanty, an internationally renowned fencing coach with whom she had trained in Portland. Like Glon, Korfanty was an immigrant from Poland; the men knew each other.

Korfanty told Glon about Oldham’s allegations in January 2018. But Glon found the allegation “difficult to believe,” according to Penn State’s investigative report. He asked Abashidze about her claim, and the assistant coach contended that he and Oldham simply had been “talking and flirting on the plane, then had drinks and fell asleep.”

Still, given that Oldham was upset, Glon asked Abashidze to apologize to her.

In February 2018, Oldham agreed to meet Glon at a tournament in North Carolina. There, she told him her account, even wrote out a description. “If he does this to me, what about your students?” she said she asked him.

That also was when Abashidze delivered his apology to her, in a hotel lobby. “He denied remembering anything, said he was sorry multiple times, but that he ‘didn’t know,’ ” Oldham said in her complaint to Penn State.

Glon, she said, seemed more concerned about how the allegation would affect Abashidze than about her or the Penn State students. She asked Glon if he planned to report the incident to Penn State; he said he did not.

“I told Wes that acceptance of behavior like this thwarted development of women and men in our sport,” Oldham said.

Penn State’s fencing team had already weathered one scandal. Glon had taken over as interim head coach in 2013 after the former coach, Emmanuel Kaidanov, was dismissed for allegedly retaliating against an employee who reported alleged drug use by an athlete. Kaidanov sued and he and the university eventually settled the claim.

That upheaval occurred as the Sandusky case was continuing to roil the university. Sandusky had been convicted but former university president Graham B. Spanier and two key administrators were facing trial on allegations that they failed to report Sandusky’s suspected abuse of young boys. All three were convicted of child endangerment, although a federal judge this spring overturned Spanier’s conviction. In the years since Sandusky, Penn State had instituted reforms, including annual training for every coach on reporting sexual misconduct.

Oldham encountered Glon again at the April 2018 national fencing championship in Virginia. Korfanty was with him. Glon told her about Abashidze’s “anxiety” over the SafeSport investigation, she said.

“No one will believe you,” she said he told her. Korfanty also didn’t stand up for her, she said.

“The intent was very clear — to intimidate and bully me, and he used my coach, my mentor,” she said.

[Reached by phone this month, Korfanty told The Inquirer he didn’t know who to believe and was upset that Oldham called him and sparked the SafeSport investigation. Abashidze’s apology should have sufficed, he said. He also questioned why Oldham didn’t ask a flight attendant on the December 2017 flight for help or to have her seat changed. "Maybe she provoke him,” Korfanty said. “There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know.”]

After a couple months had passed with no action, Oldham’s husband, Jeff Kallio, who runs the Mid-South Fencers’ Club in Durham, N.C., with her, took the matter into his hands. Last June, he reported the assault on his wife and Glon’s inaction to Penn State’s athletic director, Sandy Barbour, in an email. In a subsequent phone call with the university’s athletic integrity officer and the vice president for affirmative action, Kallio provided more details.

Penn State officials told him it was the first they had heard of the complaint, according to Oldham. The university began its own investigation.

Among other things, it found that Vaden, the New Jersey vendor, corroborated Oldham’s claims. The Penn State coach had appeared to be inebriated when he got on the plane, Vaden said. He also recalled being asleep next to Oldham when she woke him “kind of wild-eyed” with discomfort and asked for his help. Vaden also said he overheard Abashidze propositioning her as she continued to say no, and he saw Abashidze touching her.

“It was disturbing,” Vaden, of New Brunswick, said in an interview this week. “It was just a complete violation of her space.”

In the days following the flight, Vaden said, he had wished he had done more on the plane, but was so shocked at the time by what he was witnessing. "I felt bad that I didn’t haul off and slug him,” Vaden said.

In August, SafeSport suspended Abashidze for three years. Penn State placed him on administrative leave within 24 hours. Abashidze appealed the SafeSport decision, and his suspension was later reduced to one year.

SafeSport declined to answer questions about the reduction or other aspects of the case, referring a reporter to its website, which notes that Abashidze had been suspended Aug. 1 for sexual misconduct violations including sexual harassment and nonconsensual contact.

Penn State issued its investigative report in February and fired Abashidze March 4.

Reached by phone this month, Abashidze declined comment and referred questions to his lawyer, Toni Cherry, who did not return a call. According to the Penn State investigative report, Abashidze denied Oldham’s account and suggested other motives for her allegation, including a child-custody dispute with her ex-husband, with whom he is friends — assertions Oldham and her lawyer dispute.

Oldham and her lawyer received a copy of Penn State’s report and the disciplinary action it took against Abashidze. Because the report didn’t address Glon, they filed the formal complaint against him.

The university spokesperson, Lokman, said Oldham’s complaint against Glon was investigated, but university policy prohibits him from disclosing any steps, such as sanctions, that may have followed. Sanctions can range from a formal warning to termination.

"We expect all university employees to follow our policies, and when they are not followed, take appropriate action,” he said.

Oldham said she hopes speaking out will help others “feel the same courage.”

Meanwhile, she said, she’s faced a backlash from the fencing community over her complaint, even from someone she had counted among her best friends. She has had to stand up to men she had long respected.

“I’ve known Glon since I was competing in college,” she said. “That’s what makes this hard.”