If two high school coaches lead a girl into an empty locker room and lock the door behind them, something bad can happen, and at Kilgore High School, according to a new lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, it did.
The lawsuit tells about a student suffering "severe mental and emotion anguish," "social isolation" and losing the "freedom to deal with her sexuality privately," and the suit also reveals another case of bullying a gay student, this time at the hands of a softball coach.
"[The student] is remarkably strong and resilient, especially considering this happened in East Texas," Jim Harrington, a lawyer with the Civil Rights Project, tells Hair Balls. "Who knows what would've happened if that wasn't the case, and that's actually what motivated [the girl and her mother] to come forward."
One coach in question is Kilgore's head softball coach Cassie Newell. Coach Newell was no doubt loved by her players. She brought in motivational speakers to talk to her girls about women in sports. She's a "certified personal trainer, regional and state gymnastics champion, licensed professional counselor and certified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator," a method of psychological testing.
Newell was also an aspiring professional football player. She had stints with the East Texas Saberkats and the Shreveport Aftershock of the Independent Women's Football League (the Houston Energy play in Pearland). Newell won the starting quarterback job for the Aftershock but during her first game, where the softball team from Kilgore cheered her on, Newell blew out her knee.
(More about all that on Newell's blog, Living the Dream:My journey through ACL surgery and rehab as well my life as a women's football player.)
The student in question -- identified as S.W. in the suit -- was a "happpy, athletic high school sophomore." She attended schools in Kilgore for twelve years and started playing sports in the eighth grade. She was on the high school softball team for two years and was an "enthusiastic and well-liked player." And, according to the lawsuit, she is gay.
On March 2 of last year, according to the lawsuit, S.W. showed up at the softball field for a team meeting, and after it was over, Newell and another coach told the girls to go home. S.W. was told to stay.
The coaches took S.W. in a locker room and locked the door and "violated S.W.'s privacy and personal autonomy in the worst possible way."
The lawsuit says Rhonda Fletcher, the other coach named as a defendant
asked S.W. if she was gay, accused her of having a sexual relationship with another girl. She also claimed that S.W. was spreading gossip about this other girl being "Coach Newell's girlfriend."
The girl...had interacted with Newell at a number of school events. At the time of [the] confrontation, S.W. was dating that girl.
Fletcher and Newell then threatened S.W. that they were going to tell her mother that she was gay and having a sexual relationship with another girl. They warned S.W. that she could not play in the softball game that night until they told her mother this information. Finally, they allowed S.W. to leave the locker room.
The suit doesn't make clear what motivated Newell to confront and out S.W. But, according to Harrington, he, S.W and her mother believe the coach was upset because S.W. was romantically involved with a girl who Newell had previously dated. Of course, Harrington says, "It's always hard to determine someone's motivation."
After the locker room incident, the coaches called S.W.'s mother and told her to come to the softball field. The coaches told the mother that S.W. was a lesbian and in a relationship with an 18-year-old girl.
"Newell offered her the contact information for this "girlfriend," the lawsuit says. "She retrieved the phone number from her cell phone."
According to the lawsuit, S.W. was later kicked off the softball team and her academic performance nose-dived: "...her long-held ambition of attending college to study kinesiology and sports medicine, in emulation of her one-time role models, was destroyed," the lawsuit says.
The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is also taking on the state in a baby's blood lawsuit, filed this suit after S.W.'s mother couldn't resolve the issue with the Kilgore school district. She filed complaints with the high school principal, the superintendent and the district's Board of Trustees. Each step, the lawsuit says, "offered no remedy to S.W. for the injury she had suffered."
Kilgore superintendent Jody Clements tells Hair Balls he knew about possible litigation, because after the mother exhausted her options with the district, she wasn't happy with the way things turned out. It all started, Clements says, with a disciplinary action about "something that happened with one of the athletic teams."
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Clements wouldn't comment on the lawsuit -- the district hasn't been served -- or details of the original incident as he understands it, or the district's response, because it involves a student.
"We feel confident we handled it the right way," Clements says. "But that's why there is a legal system. We'll proceed and let the courts decide what was right."
Still, the lawsuit says the coaches have "no legitimate state interest in the disclosure of students' sexual orientation to parents. Doing so is a severe and traumatic violation of students' privacy..."
"We want to change the way they do business in Kilgore," Harrington says. "They have to learn to respect the rights of the students."