“Karma, baby.” A Teachable Moment for coaches…..

The tennis coach testified that the mom of one of his players yelled at him during practice: “I know you have an autistic son.  I hope this happens to him, only twice as bad.  Karma, baby.”  The mother acknowledged being angry with the coach, but denied saying those words.  If this case ends up in a full blown trial, that factual dispute will be resolved.  There is also a more fundamental factual dispute that needs to be resolved: did the coach exclude the girl from the tennis team because of her disability?

The case provides an excellent Teachable Moment for coaches about the duty to accommodate students with disabilities.  The court kept this case alive because of a single statement by the coach: 

Ricke [tennis coach] testified that he had already decided that T.W. would not make the team before tryouts occurred. 

Oh.  So before she even had a tryout, the girl with Asperger’s Syndrome and a 504 plan was excluded.  The “win probability” for the plaintiff in this lawsuit just went way up.  However, the coach had some reasons for his decisions, many of which sound pretty good:

He testified he “felt like last year was going to be a very big issue and still on her mind a lot, so much so that I don’t feel like she could get past it and even have a productive year…and there were a lot of girls who were just concerned about the team disruptions and those types of things.” He cited the incident where [the mother] yelled at him at the end of the year, and incidents during other practices where T.W. became very upset and threw rackets at him.  He testified that he was concerned for T.W. and “really felt it was in the best interest of T.W. to not be on that team because I was, to  be honest, I was fearful that if she didn’t make regions, which was a high probability, that she would threaten suicide again, or in fact, actually do it.”  He stated that he had “the whole team to think about” and that he “didn’t get any indication” that “it could have been a positive experience for her going forward.”  (Emphasis added).

Thrown tennis rackets.  Hmmm.  Win probability for the plaintiff goes down a bit.

But this is exactly where the student’s status as a student with a 504 plan becomes an issue. Key Quote:

Each of [the coach’s] reasons for deciding before tryouts that T.W. would not be on the team relate to behavior directly attributable to T.W.’s Asperger’s Syndrome Disorder and anxiety. 

The record does show that T.W. may not have been as skilled as other players and that she had a difficult time with accepting feedback and working on a team.  However, a reasonable jury could conclude that with the benefit of reasonable accommodations, T.W. would have met the team’s necessary requirements.

There is your Teachable Moment.  Provide accommodations first; then assess the student’s ability to be a member of the team.  Don’t make a decision about who is on the team until those accommodations have been provided.  This one is Clemons v. Shelby County BOE, decided by the 6th Circuit on June 22, 2020.  We found it at Special Ed Connection, 76 IDELR 235.


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!