A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a former coach of a South Bend high school basketball powerhouse who claimed he was forced out because he was white may proceed with a discrimination suit against the school corporation.
Former South Bend-Riley High School basketball coach Mark Johnson sued South Bend Community Schools alleging race discrimination and disparate treatment, retaliation for complaining about the alleged discrimination, and negligent failure to supervise.
Johnson’s first two claims survived the school corporation’s motion to dismiss, with District Judge Philip P. Simon leaving the door open for Johnson to revise his negligent supervision claim.
According the Johnson’s complaint, he had been a coach at Riley for 15 years. Before the 2016-17 season began, principal Francois Bayingana made the unusual request that Johnson keep school board member Leslie Wesley’s son on the team, which he did. Both Bayingana and Wesley are African-American. Johnson’s suit alleges Wesley subsequently tried to interfere with his coaching authority and made negative comments about him.
“Johnson claims that Wesley went public with the complaints about him and his coaching. In particular, she went on Facebook and publicly accused him of hidden racism,” Simon wrote in an order Tuesday denying South Bend schools’ motion to dismiss the claims.
Wesley’s sister, Charan Richards, the head guidance counselor at Riley, “started to do Wesley’s bidding,” Simon wrote. “On February 12, 2017, Richards sent an email to Johnson, carbon copying Principal Bayingana and the athletic director, saying ‘Mark, from [South Bend] LaSalle to [South Bend] Riley you have done African American males (team players) wrong’ and ‘I’m on to you Mark’ ... The message even had the whiff of a threat to it; Richards told Johnson that ‘I am watching you this year.’”
Johnson said he immediately reported the emails as harassment to the principal and athletic director, but neither the principal or SBCSC superintendent Kenneth Spells, who knew of the harassment allegations, investigated.
Considering “did not believe he had the support of his administration and he did not believe he could remain an effective teacher and coach since he is a Caucasian male in a school with a large minority student, teacher, and administrative population,” Johnson retired from his teaching and coaching position. His suit alleges that when he agreed to teach summer school, “following the June 5, 2017 school board meeting, Johnson was the only teacher not approved for summer school.”
In letting his discrimination claim survive the motion to dismiss, Simon wrote, “Johnson has pleaded sufficient factual detail to put SBCSC on notice of a plausible claim that he was constructively discharged, and the allegations do rise above the speculative level. I will concede that the factual allegations are a bit tepid at this point, but they are enough, if barely so, to get the case to discovery. And to the extent SBCSC argues that Johnson hasn’t said enough about how egregious his working
conditions were, I think that is something best left for summary judgment, after discovery has fleshed out all the facts of the case.”
South Bend schools have yet to reply to Johnson’s allegations in the suit, Mark Johnson v. South Bend Community Schools Corp., 3:17-cv-825.