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Suit: Niskayuna Rowing discriminated against student

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Suit: Niskayuna Rowing discriminated against student

The parents of a Niskayuna High School student with learning disabilities are suing the school board
Suit: Niskayuna Rowing discriminated against student
Members of the Niskayuna Rowing team prepare to start their workout during an April 21 practice in Niskayuna in 2015.
Photographer: Michael Kelly

The parents of a Niskayuna High School student with learning disabilities are suing the school board and Niskayuna Rowing, alleging coaches illegally restricted their son’s participation with the rowing team.

Dawn and Carl LeGere contend the rowing coaches excluded or discriminated against their son based on his disability, making “generalizations and assumptions” about the boy’s disability and ability, the suit reads.

The parents also contend that coaches relegated the boy, a 10th-grader at the school identified in the suit only by his initials, to the seventh- and eighth-grade modified team when he’d signed up to row in the age-appropriate program.

“The coaching staff deliberately excluded S.L. from meaningful participation in the Niskayuna Rowing Team based upon his disabilities and their wrongful beliefs about the nature and extent of his disabilities,” the suit reads.

The LeGeres are alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Albany, identifies three coaches by name, including ousted varsity and freshman boys’ head coach Jonathan Markowicz. None are named as defendants.

Named as defendants are the Niskayuna school board and Niskayuna Rowing Inc., which does business as Friends of Niskayuna Rowing, according to the suit.

The Niskayuna Central School District ousted Markowicz suddenly in April. Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. declined to state the reason for the firing, only saying the decision was made with the help of legal counsel.

A school spokesman said Monday the case will be referred to the district’s attorneys. He said the district generally does not comment on pending litigation. David Davenport, president of Friends of Niskayuna Rowing, declined to comment.

The LeGeres are represented by attorney Joseph Castiglione. He declined to comment for this story.

The LeGeres say their son participated in the “Learn to Row” program in summer 2015, then signed up for the fall 2015 freshman/novice rowing program. The family spent about $2,000 on registration fees and team fees, the suit reads.

The suit describes the novice program as available to all 10th- to 12-graders and some ninth-graders as a “ ‘no cut’ pay to play sport.”

The suit contends the coaches excluded the boy from regular team activities and later relegated him to the modified team.

The suit then provides 23 points alleging the coaches did that, including waiting until the final week of the fall season to put the boy on the water, when students without disabilities had been placed on the water early in the season.

The suit contends that the coaches also treated another disabled student differently, also relegating him to the modified team.

According to the suit, the district hired an independent investigator to look into the matter and the investigator “found that S.L. had been wrongfully discriminated against and was not afforded similar experiences while participating on the rowing team during the fall of 2015, as had otherwise been enjoyed by the students without disabilities.”

At a school board meeting in April, Markowicz took pains to detail strides he had taken to accommodate special-needs students and those with disabilities, saying he had requested hiring another coach to support those efforts but was denied.

Shown the lawsuit on Monday, Markowicz said allegations in the suit run counter to the culture of rowing in Niskayuna.

Markowicz took particular exception to an allegation related to the boy’s teammates. The suit alleges among the 23 points that the coaches discriminated against the boy by “failing to stop and/or encouraging teammates to harass S.L. because of his disability.”

Markowicz said teammates have been inclusive, and pointed to rower Jack Lombardo. Lombardo, one of several rowers and parents to ask the school board to reconsider Markowicz’ dismissal in April, told the school board how Markowicz and Lombardo’s fellow rowers supported him after Lombardo came out as gay.

“We’ve always promoted a culture of hard work, tolerance and integrity, no matter one’s abilities and background,” Markowicz said.

Markowicz spent just under a year with the team, having taken over after the organization and the previous coach parted ways shortly after a national title run.

Rowing is not technically a school sport, as competitions exist outside of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s jurisdiction, but the district supports the rowing program with funds for necessities such as insurance and transportation throughout the year.

The district also pays some coaching salaries during the spring season when varsity letters are awarded to rowers.

All of the rowing program’s coaches are board-approved, but the Friends of Niskayuna Rowing pays for all coaching salaries outside of the spring season.

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