A pair of former Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls lacrosse coaches filed a federal lawsuit against the district this week, alleging their firing was mishandled and stigmatized them in the public’s eye.
Girls lacrosse head coach Jake McHerron, who coached at Burnt Hills for nearly a decade, and assistant coach Mary Lou Vosburgh both claim in the suit that their future job prospects were harmed after the district abruptly suspended them and refused to accept a request for the coaches to defend themselves.
In May, on the eve of a playoff game against Scotia-Glenville, the district placed the coaches on leave and commenced an investigation into complaints about the coaches’ conduct. Neither district officials nor McHerron have detailed the nature of the complaints, but sources told The Daily Gazette that at least one parent had complained about hard practices.
“We are looking closely at complaints reported to the district,” Burnt Hills spokeswoman Tara Mitchell said at the time. She also said it was not a “criminal investigation.”
The complaint filed this week in federal court – which names the district as well as Superintendent Patrick McGrath, high school Principal Tim Brunson and athletic director Joe Scalise – argues the district’s handling of the situation was “publicly and permanently stigmatizing” to the coaches and harmed future job prospects and employment opportunities.
Attorney Phil Steck, who is representing the coaches in the suit, said the suit doesn’t contest the coaches’ dismissal but rather challenges how the district investigated the parent complaints and its refusal to give the coaches a chance for a “name-clearing” hearing, which Steck said was requested multiple times in writing.
“The case is about the right of them to have a name-clearing hearing,” Steck said. “Otherwise those things are out there in the community, and they are treated like pariahs.”
- BH girls' lacrosse coach placed on leave, May 18, 2018
- Suspended Burnt Hills coach McHerron seeks hearing, June 15, 2018
Mitchell, the district spokeswoman, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The suit outlines the kinds of things district employees allegedly said about the investigation that disparaged McHerron and Vosburgh and damaged their reputations. District officials told members of the community, the complaint claims, that the coaches had created a “negative and hostile environment” and that girls on the team were victims of “battered girlfriend syndrome.”
“These statements were untrue and held the coaches up to ridicule and contempt in the school community,” the complaint states.
Steck said the coaches are still seeking a chance to defend themselves at a name-clearing hearing. Steck said there had been various complaints about the coaches but nothing to justify how the district handled their dismissal. He also pointed to parents who were supportive of the coaches and suggested district officials overreacted to satisfy disgruntled parents.
“This is political with a small ‘p,’” said Steck, who also serves as a Democratic assemblyman from Colonie. “Someone decided the parents dissenting about this program needed to be appeased.”
Scalise, the athletic director, served as the acting head coach for the end of the lacrosse team’s season and led the Spartans to sectional wins over Scotia-Glenville and Albany Academy before a regional loss to Brewster.
McHerron's daughter, Abbie McHerron, was BH-BL's starting senior goalkeeper last season. She transferred from Scotia-Glenville to Burnt Hills for her final two years so she could play for her father. McHerron’s son, Ty, played on the boys team.
McHerron led his BH-BL teams to Section II titles in 2011, 2013, 2014 as well as last year, and his 2012 team was a sectional runner-up. His 2014 and 2017 editions also won regional titles and advanced to the state semifinals. He was slated to win a coach-of-the-year award from a national lacrosse organization but the award fell through in light of his suspension and the district’s investigation.
McHerron did not return repeated messages seeking comment.
Jim Schiltz contributed to this report.