On September 6, 2023

State, school district respond to lawsuit from former snowboard coach

 

By Katy Savage

State officials and a local school district are trying to get a lawsuit brought by a former Woodstock Union High School snowboard coach dismissed after the coach said he was wrongfully terminated for making transphobic remarks. 

Heather Bouchey, the interim secretary of the Agency of Education, Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association and Mountain Views Superintendent Sherry Sousa filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 after snowboard coach David Bloch said in a July 17 court filing his due process rights and his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired. 

Attorney Pietro Lynn, who represents Sousa, argued Sept. 1 that Bloch’s remarks were not protected under the First Amendment because they were made “part-and-parcel of his coaching duties.”

“Schools … have the ability to regulate employee speech which has the purpose or effect of disrupting student’s access to education or school programming,” Lynn wrote. 

Bloch founded the snowboarding program at Woodstock Union High School in 2011. He earned a $4,071 stipend for coaching the 2020-2021 season, court documents show.  Under Bloch’s leadership the team won three state championships and students consistently placed in the top three in statewide competitions.

Bloch was fired in February, just after returning home from a competition where another team had a transgender student who identified as a girl. During downtime at a ski lodge, Bloch overheard a conversation between two of his athletes seated at a table together. A male student on his team said it was unfair that transgender girls compete in sports against female athletes. A female athlete accused the student of being transphobic. Bloch, who was sitting at the table with them, told the students there were skeletal and biological differences between males and females, which give males an advantage in sports. 

Bloch, a Catholic, said no other students overheard their conversation.

“The conversation was respectful among all parties and lasted no more than three minutes,” Bloch’s attorneys wrote in his complaint. “It took place entirely outside the presence of the transgender identifying snowboarder.”

The next day, Sousa received a complaint, then fired Bloch and barred him from future consideration for coaching positions. 

Lynn argued in the Sept. 1 court document that Bloch was fired for creating an “offensive environment,” not for his views on trans athletes.  

While Bloch’s attorneys said the discussion happened discreetly, Lynn said the discussion caused a disruption.   

“It was reasonable given his reaction to being confronted with the complaint that he would continue to cause such disruption going forward,” Lynn wrote. 

Bloch’s attorneys also asked the court for an injunction to the statewide harassment policy and Vermont Principals’ Association harassment policy.

Sousa’s attorney argued Bloch violated the policy in court documents, while Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark said Sousa’s interpretation of the policy was “seemingly incorrect” in an Aug. 31 court filing, in which she asked for Bouchey, the interim education secretary, to be dismissed. Clark said Bouchey “played no role” in Bloch’s termination.

“The harassment policy did not mandate Plaintiff’s termination. And Defendant Sousa’s decision was never substantiated,” Clark wrote. 

Clark said the harassment policy blocks harassment and bias-based harassment that negatively affects student health and performance. 

“Plaintiff alleges that he had a private, non-disruptive conversation, which if true, does not fall ‘within the ambit’ of the harassment policy, because it did not have the objective purpose or effect of disrupting student access to education,” Clark wrote. 

A court hearing was scheduled for Sept. 25 prior to the motions to dismiss. A judge has yet to rule on the motions.

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