A white man who coached boys varsity basketball at South Bend Riley High School for 15 years before retiring will be able to proceed with his discrimination lawsuit, a judge ruled this week.
Mark Johnson is suing South Bend Community School Corp. in federal court. He alleges race discrimination and retaliation for complaining about discrimination. Judge Philip P. Simon allowed those two counts to proceed while dismissing another.
“I will concede that the factual allegations are a bit tepid at this point, but they are enough, if barely so, to get the case to discovery,” Simon wrote.
Johnson, also a teacher, coached through the 2016-17 season. He accuses a school board member and the head guidance counselor of harassment and said the school’s principal and the school corporation’s superintendent failed to address his concerns.
The school corporation, which denies the accusations, argued that Johnson complained “once of ‘harassment’ (notably, not racial harassment)” and that is not enough “to support that a reasonable person in his shoes would feel forced to retire.”
The lawsuit alleges that Riley Principal Francois Bayingana, an African-American, told the coach to keep a certain number of players on the varsity team, including the son of school board member Leslie Wesley, who is African-American.
Johnson complied but alleges that Wesley complained about his coaching ability and, on Facebook, “publicly accused him of hidden racism.”
Wesley and Johnson have known each other for years, according to Wesley’s husband, Derrick Wesley Sr., who is speaking on her behalf. He said the relationship between the two soured when she ran for school board and narrowly defeated the longtime incumbent, a friend of Johnson.
According to the lawsuit, Wesley’s sister, Charan Richards, the head guidance counselor at the school, sent an email to the coach that said, “You have done African American males (on the team) wrong” and “I’m on to you.”
Richards did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The lawsuit says Bayingana and Superintendent Kenneth Spells deliberately ignored Johnson’s complaints.
Johnson said he retired because he didn’t have the support of his administration and “he did not believe he could remain an effective teacher and coach since he is a Caucasian male in a school with a large minority student, teacher and administrative population.”
The lawsuit alleges that the school corporation was “motivated in whole or part by the race” of Johnson and that its actions were “intentional, purposeful and part of a plan or scheme to eliminate” him.
In court records, the school board says “the only fact Johnson alleges to support his belief that (the school corporation) acted discriminatorily is that the offending actors were African-American.”
Johnson said he wanted to teach summer school in 2017 but was the only teacher not approved for the job at a school board meeting. He alleges that was because his allegations had received “significant media attention.”
Not being able to teach summer school affected Johnson’s pension, which is based on his last five years of income, the lawsuit said.