WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (CN) – A track coach in a Pennsylvania school district claims in court that he was harassed by school officials for advocating for student-athletes, including opening his home to a homeless student.
Mark Sundberg says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Williamsport, Pa., federal court that his actions were condemned as causing trouble.
Sundberg was a high school history teacher in the Lewisburg Area School District for 25 years, and has been acting head track coach since 1988. He retired from teaching in 2012 but remained in a paying position as track coach.
Despite his success advancing to Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, or PIAA, state championships, his coaching was called into question because of his open advocating, according to the complaint.
For example, Sundberg noted that a cross-country course was dangerous by PIAA standards, and says he advocated for student-athlete safety in other situations.
Beginning in 2012, he spoke “directly with the administration, for coach autonomy in situations where the administration…attempted to micromanage the training of student-athletes,” the complaint states.
The coach also says he offered one adult student-athlete who “was experiencing domestic abuse, neglect and homelessness” a temporary place to live, and cooperated with police and school district officials in doing so.
“As a consequence of engaging in such activities, he was often corrected, reproved, admonished and threatened” by school district officials, including former Superintendent Mark DiRocco and since-retired Lewisburg High School Principal David Himes, according to the lawsuit. DiRocco and Himes are both named as defendants.
When Sundberg tried to bring his wife to one meeting as a witness, Principal Himes allegedly screamed at him.
Sundberg claims his July 2015 yearly evaluation initially rated him satisfactory in every category, but Himes added a negative comment to the fully executed copy.
The comment allegedly said, “I believe Mr. Sundberg should not be rehired as a coach. His actions over the past year have damaged the reputation of the school with the PIAA District IV Committee. He continues to be confrontational with students and parents who play club sports and does not show proper respect for those in authority. It is my belief that allowing Mr. Sundberg to continue in his positions will place the district and all of our athletic teams in jeopardy!”
Sundberg was then told he was “on a short leash” before being told he was actually “on a choke chain,” according to the lawsuit.
A memo sent in April 2016 allegedly stated that all coaching positions, including Sundberg’s, were considered open.
The coach says he was defamed, discriminated against and threatened with termination for advocating for student-athletes.
“The individuals named herein have engaged in retaliatory harassment against Coach Sundberg by repeatedly taking steps to try to end the employment of Coach Sundberg,” the lawsuit states. “Examples of said retaliatory harassment include the repeated opening of coaching positions to try and expedite Coach Sundberg’s replacement, engaging in defamatory conduct to harm his repudiation and the giving of false and defamatory employment evaluations.”
Sundberg’s Jan. 10 complaint alleges violations of his free speech and due process rights. He seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and also wants allegedly defamatory evaluations revised or removed so he can apply for similar coaching positions in the future. The coach is represented by Matthew J. Zeigler in Williamsport.
The Lewisburg Area School District did not respond Friday to a request for comment.