Officials from the Marlboro Central School District were silent Tuesday regarding a federal lawsuit filed by a group of current and former Marlboro High School students and parents, which alleged a long string of physical and verbal abuse by Marlboro football coach Rich Ward.
One former player cited in the lawsuit denied claims he was abused and voiced support for Ward.
Ward, Marlboro Superintendent Ray Castellani and the district are being sued for compensatory and punitive damages. The lawsuit calls for Ward’s termination as Marlboro coach. The plaintiffs are Marlboro graduates Thomas Corcoran III, Dylan West, Dominic Santora, and student Jimmy Farrett, as well as Alfred and Kerstin Votta on behalf of their son Justin and adopted son Ralph.
The 20-page lawsuit filed Monday by the plaintiffs’ attorney Michael H. Sussman alleges Ward, who teaches physical education at Cornwall Middle School in Orange County, used vulgar, threatening, racist and sexist language when speaking to his players and instructed them to injure opponents.
Marlboro Board of Education President Frank Milazzo said the district had not been served with the lawsuit and that the district does not comment on pending litigation. Ward and Castellani did not return calls Wednesday.
Lawsuits can take years to be settled or go to trial, with both sides filing motions, taking depositions and reviewing evidence. For example, respondents can ask a judge to consider dismissing a lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in Albany, which covers Ulster County.
Sussman said he has attempted to work on this matter with the school district since January without going through the court system. The school district hired its own investigator for the case and did not sanction or discipline Ward.
“I heard the young people speak to investigators,” Sussman said. “It’s unfortunate that the school district, and in particular the superintendent, dug his heels in and is protecting the coach. That’s pretty much what I have to say. We’ll proceed and litigate the case and hope there’s change in Marlboro for the sake of the students.”
The lawsuit cited an incident in which Ward grabbed Marlboro senior Ryan Cary by his face mask during a state playoff game.
“I support coach Ward,” Cary said. “I don’t think he’s ever crossed the line. I didn’t take that as abuse. I think that’s totally over-exaggerating. Coach Ward teaches you a lot of values you could carry later in your life like hard work and dedication. Coach Ward and the whole Marlboro coaching staff was the best group I could’ve ever asked for. I learned so much from them and wouldn’t want to have played under anyone else.”
Kerstin Votta said Justin Votta, a senior who also plays for the school’s baseball team, did not consider playing football for Marlboro in 2013.
“Justin never quit the team,” Kerstin Votta said. “This year, he did not try out. He didn’t pursue it. He didn’t want to play for Rich Ward. As much as he enjoyed it, it wasn’t worth it.”
Kerstin Votta said Ralph Votta, whom the Vottas formally adopted on Dec. 7, 2012, played for Marlboro through the team’s Oct. 11 homecoming game against Ellenville. Kerstin Votta said Ward declined to play Ralph Votta in the game. Subsequently, Ralph Votta quit the team with two games remaining in the regular season.
“Ralph played every game until homecoming,” said Kerstin Votta, who noted Ralph does not play another sport. “He was embarrassed and humiliated in front of family and friends.”
The lawsuit alleges that Ward “instructed his players to intentionally and improperly injure identified opposing players,” namely New Paltz senior Khariff LaBoy and Spackenkill graduate Josh Riley. The lawsuit alleges that Ward regularly referenced opponents “going out in body bags,” or wanted them “in a body bag.” The lawsuit alleges that Ward applauded and encouraged “vicious” play. Spackenkill coach Clinton DeSouza declined comment on the specific nature of the allegations in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges Ward forced players to play through serious injuries, made players he disliked run laps for as many as three hours, and grabbed them and aggressively shoved them when they didn’t perform to his satisfaction.
The lawsuit cited eight specific allegations of physical abuse and many accounts of verbal abuse. The lawsuit cites a violation of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association handbook’s bylaws, which says, “a coach who strikes, shoves, kicks or makes other physical contact with the intent to annoy, harass, or intimidate another person (e.g. official, another coach, player, fan) shall be expelled immediately and banned from further participation or coaching in all sports for a period of time to be determined by the section not to exceed one year from the date of the offense.”
Marlboro’s athletic director, Jonnah O’Donnell, a high school friend of Ward’s who Ward was alleged to disparage, said she could not comment on behalf of the district. O’Donnell hired Ward as Marlboro coach in 2010. Ward was approved by Marlboro’s Board of Education as the high school’s head coach for the 2013-14 season on April 4 for a stipend of $7,621. Marlboro coaches are approved on an annual basis.
Ward, whose Iron Dukes have won the Section 9 Class B championship in each of the last three years, has coached teams into a state semifinal for two straight years. Ward is a 1985 Marlboro graduate. Before being hired at Marlboro, Ward was defensive coordinator for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s sprint football team.