Abusive Coach, Good Teacher Still Leads to Termination in Alabama Case

Sep 29, 2006

An Alabama appeals court has agreed with a school board that a coach’s practice of having his players administer punishment to fellow players who broke his rules was, in fact, appropriate grounds to terminate the coach.
In so ruling, the court overturned the ruling of an arbitrator, who had reversed the Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County’s decision to terminate.
Marion Dunn was a science teacher and the head varsity basketball coach at B.C. Rain High School in Mobile. Prior to the start of the 2004-2005 basketball season, Dunn agreed, at the request of two of his players, to institute a form of team discipline known as the “one-minute drill” or “circle” during basketball practice.
The court described the measure as follows: “When the team thought that one of its members needed to be disciplined for violating a team rule or for not performing up to capacity, the team members would encircle the player to be disciplined and hit or kick that player in the center of the circle for 15, 30, or 60 seconds, depending on the offense, while Dunn stood by and timed the punishment with a stopwatch. The record indicates that Dunn decided the length of time of the circle drill.
“Although Dunn established certain ground rules for the circle drill by prohibiting, for example, blows to the head, the evidence indicated that the players themselves determined whether and to what extent discipline was warranted for a teammate. The evidence tended to show that, during the 6-week period before the start of the 2004-2005 basketball season, the circle drill was used on 11 occasions.”
The drill was exposed when one of the players, who was beaten, complained to his aunt, a school nurse at another public school, of being bruised and sore. He told her that he was “tired of getting beat.” The aunt went to the school and talked to Dunn, as well as the school principal, and the school’s resource officer. The resource officer subsequently interviewed Dunn and all of the players on the team. Dunn was ultimately fired, a decision that was later appealed to a hearing officer.
On April 30, 2005, the hearing officer revoked the cancellation of Dunn’s employment contract as a teacher. Instead, it imposed a 30-day suspension without pay, ordered that Dunn be barred from any coaching position for a period of 4 years, and required Dunn to issue an apology to his players and their families.
The Board appealed that decision, arguing that the hearing officer’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Before rendering its decision, the appeals court quoted, in relevant parts, the hearing officer’s written opinion:
“(C)oaching athletics carries with it a clear responsibility to make certain that the players’ health and welfare is protected at all times. Parents place their utmost trust in coaches to do just that; coaches have in a sense a fiduciary responsibility to keep this trust or at least a strong moral responsibility to do so.
“The testimony from his own players, as well as his admissions at this hearing, unquestionably establish that on these many occasions he chose not to protect them.
“The notion that discipline in sports can go so far as allowing for players to be hit and kicked as a means to punish them cannot be acceptable. … There are well-publicized cases of coaching icons that have lost their jobs over temper-tantrums that resulted in bouts with players, or more recently a well-known basketball coach with many years college experience who was indefinitely suspended by his school from coaching for sending his player on the court to intentionally harm an opposing player. There is enough violence in the streets already without coaching role models adopting those tactics for discipline at school-sponsored athletics.”
At the same time, the officer noted that it would be “a huge oversight to … ignore his spotless employment record (as a teacher) and other evidence presented at this hearing.
“(I)t is clear that Dunn always had the best educational interests of his students at heart and took many positive steps on their behalf. These are valuable assets; to strip them away from this inner city school, which may have few assets, can hurt more than help it. This record contains no evidence that Dunn lacks the qualities needed of a good and sound teacher.”
The appeals court questioned the conclusion of the hearing officer, which “suggests that Dunn’s position as an educator and his position as a basketball coach are somehow separate and distinct from one another.
“The decision to categorize Dunn’s actions into those of a teacher versus those of a basketball coach sets a dangerous precedent for those students who play sports under the guidance of a coach who also teaches them in the classroom.
“(W)e conclude that the hearing officer’s decision was arbitrary and capricious. To hold otherwise, as the dissent advocates, would effectively condone the actions of a teacher who allowed a group of students to assault another student while he observed and timed the brutal act; this we cannot do.”
In the dissenting opinion, the judge claimed the majority was “substituting its judgment for that of the hearing officer in a case in which reasonable people could differ as to the wisdom of the decision. (T)he majority is engaging in judicial activism and usurpation of the legislative function.”
Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County v. Marion Dunn; Ct. Civ. App. Ala.; 2040708; 2006 Ala. Civ. App. LEXIS 334; 6/16/06


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