Legal Brief

When Parents Blow the Whistle on Coaches
By MARGARET A. SKELTON/School Administrator, June 2018

“MY CHILD DOESN’T get enough ice time.”

“I could coach the kids better than that!”

“My child told me about something that happened in the locker room.”

Parent complaints about their children’s coaches, from allegations of serious misconduct to interference in decision making, are not a new phenomenon. School administrators long have been on the receiving end of phone calls and e-mails. What’s new is the emotional volatility, fueled by social media, once other adults voice their support for the coach.

At that point, a district and its top leader can end up in the middle of a virulent, cross-community debate. Separating parents’ valid concerns of misconduct from Monday morning quarterbacks can be a challenge for even the most seasoned school administrators.

Regardless of how a complaint is presented, the worst reaction is to ignore it. The recent allegations raised by competitive gymnasts point to the peril of failing to act. USA Gymnastics now faces dozens of lawsuits alleging it ignored credible reports and warning signs of sexual abuse.

Hostile Attitudes
Of course, most complaints over coaches are not about sexual abuse or other significant misconduct.

A respected high school basketball coach in northern Minnesota recently and very publicly quit coaching after 22 years, citing parents as the primary cause. The coach, a retired police officer, expressed frustration with the anger and hostility of a small but growing number of parents. “If you win, it doesn’t matter. If you lose, it doesn’t matter. If their kid doesn’t get enough playing time — look out,” the coach told the local newspaper, the Brainerd Dispatch.

As the examples suggest, school districts have to delicately balance their response to parental complaints. To complicate matters, it is not unusual for complaints about coaches to be made directly to the school board.

As such, school board members must be aware that a complaint made to them, even an informal complaint, can be used as evidence that the school district was aware of an allegation of misconduct. Depending on the type of claim (e.g., discrimination or sexual misconduct), this could have serious legal repercussions for the school district. Accordingly, school members and administrators should not agree to keep parent or student complaints “confidential,” but should be encouraged to direct all complaints to the athletic director or other appropriate administrator for handling.

After receiving a complaint, the school district should follow its internal policies and procedures for investigating. The nature of the allegations, as well as the applicable policy, will determine the scope of the investigation. While many complaints will fall into the playing time category, which generally can be resolved quickly, some complaints will require more extensive investigation. School districts should seriously consider retaining an attorney or other outside investigator for serious complaints, including allegations of hazing, unlawful harassment, discrimination or abuse.

Procedural Rights
School districts also must be careful in their public communication about the complaints made against a coach. State law and, to the extent there is information about current or former students, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act restrict what information can be shared publicly.

For more serious misconduct, a school board may consider terminating a coach’s duties. The district should be aware of any procedural rights the coach may have. While these rights vary by state or contract terms, coaches typically have greater procedural rights associated with a termination during the life of an existing contract. In Minnesota, varsity head coaches have procedural rights after the nonrenewal of their annual contract. School districts ought to consult legal counsel for options.

School districts must use a defined process to funnel complaints to appropriate administrators, investigate the complaints promptly and then take appropriate action — always keeping in mind the procedural rights of the coaches. Having a process in place will assist in separating out valid complaints and help to minimize public disruption and exposure to potential liability.

MARGARET SKELTON is a partner in the law firm of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney in Minneapolis, Minn. Twitter: @RatwikLaw