Coaches beware…

A preliminary ruling in a federal court case in California demonstrates how vulnerable schools are to lawsuits alleging disability discrimination.  The school district may well eventually prevail on the merits of the suit, but the court’s refusal to dismiss the case early on increases school district exposure and cost.  This is not a case where the school district openly or obviously treated a student with a disability unfairly.  The evidence of bad behavior by the school was basically: 1) a coach called a student by the wrong name; 2) another coach yelled and cursed at him.  The court does not explain how any of that, even if true, had anything to do with the boy’s disability.  But the court ruled that these bare allegations were sufficient to create a disputed fact that would have to be resolved in a full blown and expensive trial.

Why should the court dismiss the case early on?  Let’s start with the fact that neither the student nor his parent asked for a reasonable accommodation to help him have a fair tryout for the basketball teams. Yes, there were two teams at two high schools where coaches rated his performance inadequate for varsity basketball.  In fact, in his deposition, the student testified that he did not need any accommodations, and the coaches treated him the same as the other students.  The boy felt he was a good enough player to make varsity. The coaches disagreed. This makes a federal case????

Let’s add this: the tryouts consisted of three two-hour sessions.  So it’s not like the coaches did not allow him to try out, or cut him short.  At both high schools the coaches reached the same conclusion: he’s not a good enough player to make the varsity.   The lawyer representing the student offered testimony from two coaches who did not work for the school district but had seen the student play in other venues.  They thought the boy’s skills were adequate for the varsity.

So we have coaches who disagree about the boy’s ability, which is not unusual.  But it is mystifying that the court would not give more weight to the input from the coaches who had observed him in tryouts for this particular team with these particular potential teammates. 

There is always more to a court case than appears in the court’s opinion, particularly when it is a ruling on a preliminary motion to dismiss.  I don’t write this Dawg post to criticize the judge, but rather, to let my readers know how vulnerable schools and coaches are to claims like this.  It doesn’t take much to get the case to trial.  When faced with a trial on a claim of disability discrimination, the school faces considerable expense.  Even if the case eventually settles, the price tag goes up when the court refuses to dismiss the case.

So be sure that your coaches are aware of who has a disability that might require accommodations in the tryout process.  Be sure that you are asking about that in whatever forms parents fill out to permit participation. Be sure that coaches and sponsors allow for accommodations, and document what they have done.  It looks to me, from this limited view, that these coaches did everything they were supposed to do. The school got sued anyway.  We can’t control what we can’t control.  So just focus on what’s within your control.

This one is Brown v. Elk Grove USD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of California on December 9, 2020. We found it on Special Ed Connection at 120 LRP 38965.