Angry parents cost this coach his job. So he sued and won $50K

Photo: Jamie Germano, Democrat & Chronicle

Angry parents cost this coach his job. So he sued and won $50K

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Angry parents cost this coach his job. So he sued and won $50K

Mark Storm’s message to the hundreds of boys and girls he met as a teacher and coach at Honeoye Central was “give me four years and I’ll give you a lifetime.”

He gave more than half his life to the small school south of Rochester, as a physical education teacher for 29 years and coach for 31 in basketball, baseball, softball and soccer. But the loyalty wasn’t reciprocated. In 2015, a few parents of his players complained to the school board, claiming Storm was a bully and broke promises to his players. Another letter sent to superintendent David. C. Bills alleged that Storm was the reason some athletes didn’t go out for teams. But the allegations got much worse. They accused Storm of being verbally abusive and having a drinking problem.

A few months later, Honeoye’s Board of Education voted 5-2 against rehiring Storm as boys varsity basketball coach. Then Storm did something coaches who lose their jobs because of parental interference rarely do. He fought back.

Storm filed a defamation lawsuit against the parents who wrote that inflammatory letter and last month agreed to a $50,000 settlement (he sought $150,000). In a day and age when high school coaches frequently leave the profession after becoming fed up with parental interference, cases like this are not unprecedented, but they are rare.

A high school baseball coach in California won a $700,000 slander suit in 2005 when the parent of a player accused the coach of ruining his son’s chances of becoming a college and pro prospect. The Storm case is different because it was a personal attack on a reputation he spent years building.

“This went over the line,” Storm, 61, said of that one letter. “Something had to be done.”

Storm retired from teaching in 2013 but kept coaching at the school for which he used to “bleed royal blue.”

“My hope,” he said about filing the lawsuit, “is people will at least start to think about what they’re saying, think about what they do before they send that email.”

Storm wanted to draw a line in the sand. “Enough is enough,” he said of coaches being run off by parents. “I wanted to do something for other coaches.”

The parent-coach dynamic has shifted over the years in high school sports. While many schools and coaches hold preseason meetings to outline expectations prior to a season, differences develop — often regarding an athlete’s playing time — and some parents become more involved, leading to animosity between both parties.

Storm has a new term for “helicopter parent.” He calls them “lawnmower parents.”

“They just mow everything down that’s in their kid’s way,” he said.

Richard Lapchick, a human rights activist and internationally recognized expert on sports issues, said in an email that he has never heard of a coach suing a parent for defamation. “The result is surprising — maybe part of the country holding people accountable,” added Lapchick, who chairs a sports management program at the University of Central Florida and is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Why? Because coaches in youth/club sports often give parents more access for feedback because parents essentially pay the coach’s salary via team fees.

“Families are paying younger and they’re paying more (money) and for 10 years if parents have questions they’ve gone to the coach,” Zayas said. “It gives them the misconception that they have a say, but when their kids get to the high school level parents are amazed they no longer do have (a) say.”

Coaching contemporaries told Storm he’d regret filing the lawsuit. He doesn’t. What he regrets is what happened at Honeoye, where he was a successful coach and part of the fabric of the school. He never wanted it to end the way it did, his legacy tarnished by allegations.

“That’s where my life was. That’s why it hurt,” he said.

“They just mow everything down that’s in their kid’s way,” he said.

Richard Lapchick, a human rights activist and internationally recognized expert on sports issues, said in an email that he has never heard of a coach suing a parent for defamation. “The result is surprising — maybe part of the country holding people accountable,” added Lapchick, who chairs a sports management program at the University of Central Florida and is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public School Athletic Association, also has never heard of a case in which a coach sues a parent. He thinks club sports are to blame for so much more parental noise these days.

Why? Because coaches in youth/club sports often give parents more access for feedback because parents essentially pay the coach’s salary via team fees.

“Families are paying younger and they’re paying more (money) and for 10 years if parents have questions they’ve gone to the coach,” Zayas said. “It gives them the misconception that they have a say, but when their kids get to the high school level parents are amazed they no longer do have (a) say.”

Coaching contemporaries told Storm he’d regret filing the lawsuit. He doesn’t. What he regrets is what happened at Honeoye, where he was a successful coach and part of the fabric of the school. He never wanted it to end the way it did, his legacy tarnished by allegations.

“That’s where my life was. That’s why it hurt,” he said.

Storm and his wife, Kathy, had a special relationship with the Honeoye community for many years. Kathy, a Spencerport native known to most as “KB,” still teaches there. Their son, Mason, will graduate next month. He was finishing his freshman year when the controversy started.

A native of Depew, Mark Storm arrived at Honeoye, which has an enrollment of 324 students in grades 6 though 12, in 1983. The constant in his 31-year coaching tenure was basketball. In 29 seasons, he developed the Honeoye girls into a Finger Lakes West contender and three-time Section V champion. His 405 wins still rank fifth in Section V history and his softball teams (nine seasons) also won two sectionals. His 2008 baseball squad reached the state semifinals.

Storm also served as Honeoye’s athletic director for 3½ years, most recently in 2013. But he was known and “well-respected” well beyond Bulldog Country, Section V Girls Basketball Coordinator Tim Lincoln of Waterloo said. Storm was on the Section V girls basketball committee for many years.

Tragedy strengthened the Storms’ bond with Honeoye in 2002. Their son Merritt, Mason’s twin, died of cancer when the boy was just 2½ years old. That November day of Merritt’s funeral, Honeoye closed school so people could attend and held a reception at the school afterward.

“I looked at Honeoye Central as family,” Storm said. “To watch my wife and son go to that school every day and — I don’t know if ashamed is the right word — but to have a stigma almost attached to them, it’s tough to have to deal with.”

When the 2012-13 boys varsity basketball season was canceled with three games left after a hazing incident and the varsity and junior-varsity coaches resigned, who did Honeoye ask to step in and pull double duty? It was Storm. He coached the girls varsity and boys JV teams for two weeks.

He said parents urged him to take over and stabilize the boys program. It wasn’t the first time that was suggested, but Storm said he never wanted to just drop the girls for the boys. “I always felt it’d be a slap in the face to the girls,” he said. But amid controversy and with Mason coming up, Storm thought it was the right thing to do.

He never planned to coach his son and, as it turned out, he never did — other than one game in sectionals. But Storm also never envisioned how it would play out, either. The Bulldogs went 6-31 in his two seasons as coach. They were young. They’ve gone 9-12, 10-11 and 14-10 since, losing last winter in the Section V Class D1 title game.

But Storm knows he wasn’t sacked over wins and losses.

Mason never played varsity. He played one more JV basketball season as a sophomore, then gave it up for track. His father rarely steps foot on Honeoye school grounds anymore.

“I guess,” Mark Storm said solemnly, “I don’t feel welcome there.”

At some point, every coach figures out that you can’t keep everyone happy.

“It’s just not going to happen,” Storm said. “Over my 30 years, did we have parents who were unhappy? Of course, and for a variety of reasons. I think every coach gets that.”

Bil Saxby understood it. He coached Honeoye boys basketball for 17 years (and 258 wins) before stepping down in 1991 and becoming athletic director. Storm considers him a mentor, too, and Saxby wrote a letter to the school in support of Storm in June 2015. When asked about Storm, Saxby recited almost verbatim what he wrote in that email, explaining how he always evaluated coaches when he was AD.

“I didn’t look at wins and losses. I just thought: Does the coach have certain values that I’d want my son or daughter to learn from him? The answer with Mark was always unequivocally, ‘Yes,’ ” Saxby said by phone from his home in Florida.

He has been out of it for 15 years, but Saxby knows how much tougher it is these days for coaches who must contend with emails from parents questioning their decisions. “I never had to deal with that,” Saxby said.

When a parent confronted him, it was face to face and Saxby’s usual response was to ask that parent if they had as much interest in the performance of their child’s math, science or English teachers.

“Mark Storm can be abrasive, bull-headed and stubborn,” Saxby wrote in his 2015 email to Bills. “He is however a ‘coach.’ He puts the time in. He builds a program and he is consistent with his dealings with student athletes.”

Storm shoots straight. Ask his wife. She wasn’t pleased that night at dinner a few years back when Mark looked at Mason and said he might want to put in some extra work on the basketball court. Why? “You’re on the bubble and I don’t want to have to cut you,” Mark said with no trace of a smile.

“Old-school coach” is a label Storm wears with pride. But does it still work today?

Next month marks 10 years since Katrina Davenport graduated from Honeoye, where she played basketball for five varsity seasons under Storm.

“There were times when I hated his guts. I didn’t want to play for him because he was tough on us and that was not fun to deal with,” Davenport said. “But I know there are many former players who say what I do: He taught us a lot of life lessons and now I know there was a rhyme and reason to what he did and said.

“I think sometimes that’s why kids struggle these days: They don’t always see the reason behind it.”

Davenport, 28, has coached Penn Yan Academy’s varsity girls basketball team for two seasons. Sitting on the bench beside her has been a familiar face — Mark Storm. When she first asked him to help, Storm said, “No thanks.”

She asked him to give her just a week.

He owed her that, she joked, after his four-years-and-a-lifetime mantra. Storm plans to be back for season No. 3 next winter, too. “It’s still fun,” Storm said. He’s still the same, coach too, Davenport said.

“He was firm with us and had expectations. If you were late, you ran. If you forgot your practice jersey, you ran,” Davenport said, recalling her playing days.

And if you talked out of turn you ran some more.

In her 2015 letter to Bills in support of Storm, she wrote: “There were many times my mother wanted to call him and ask him why he was so hard on me. But she trusted him as a coach, and in the end I am thankful for every pro sprint, for every drop of sweat, for every time I was held accountable because it is solely the reason I am successful today.”

Storm’s lessons about how to conduct yourself on and off the court stuck with Davenport.

“Coaches are passionate about kids and their sport. Parents need to understand that and trust us,” Davenport said. “We do what we think is best for the team.”

Storm says Bills told him in June 2015, a couple of months before the vote, that the school’s investigation cleared the coach of wrongdoing and he would recommend to the board that Storm be rehired. Almost all coaches operate on one-year contracts and must be rehired annually.

For 31 years, that was never an issue for Storm.

But Bills also told Storm to “get some support,” because he wasn’t sure the August vote would go his way. In a small town like Honeoye, word about the allegations against Storm spread.

“I heard whispers about it from the group I hung around with,” said Dan Woodward, a senior on Storm’s basketball and baseball teams in 2014-15. “I knew some kids were unhappy with their playing time and talking to their parents about all that.”

Emails praising Storm filled Bills’ inbox that June. Some went to the board of education members, too. They came from former players such as Davenport, parents, former coaching colleagues at Honeoye as well former opposing coaches.

Sixteen emails/letters supplied to the Democrat and Chronicle supported Storm. Only two were negative. Because the names were redacted, it’s unclear who wrote them. A third anti-Storm letter was the one sent by the Lortschers.

It was Saxby, in his email from Florida, who warned Bills about empowering parents who want a coach removed. “Once you have gone down that road, you have publicly defined your philosophy,” he wrote. “Be sure that you are the one running the school, not a vigilante group.”

Storm said he first learned of the movement to oust him in that June 2015 meeting with Bills, shortly after he wrapped up his 10th season as baseball coach. That meeting lasted four hours and Storm said many issues were addressed.

But he also wondered why the superintendent didn’t come to him sooner and said he asked Bills: “If I was this person, an alcoholic and drinking before I came to practice, how could you possibly let me still coach baseball (all spring)?”

Storm said Bills offered no answer.

The scope of any investigation conducted by the school is unknown. Terry Marble, 57, a retired state trooper, was Storm’s assistant coach for those two varsity boys basketball seasons. Marble said he was never asked about Storm by any Honeoye administrator.

“I would have thought I would have been one of the first people to have been (questioned). For two years I spent five or six days a week, two to three hours a day with the team and Mark,” said Marble, whose son, Jon, was an eighth-grader and freshman on varsity those two seasons and will graduate next month.

“I don’t think Mark was treated fairly and I don’t think the whole situation was handled appropriately.”

Marble said he never witnessed Storm acting as the Lortschers’ letter suggested.

“Mark was always professional. I saw him as an educator as well as a coach. I never saw him bully anyone,” Marble said. “And I never perceived him to be under the influence of anything at any function that I was attending or worked for him for.”

After being voted out, a change.org petition in support of Storm’s reinstatement garnered 725 signatures. But at that point, there was no going back.

Nothing really has filled the void of coaching. Storm hunts. He cuts wood in back of his farm home in Canandaigua, where there is a pond and breathtaking view of fall foliage. Storm works in the summer months, too, on a farm in Bristol stacking hay bales on a trailer.

Storm can’t put a price on what the lawsuit has cost him. He had hoped to walk away after 31 years on his own terms, with his reputation in tact and satisfied with the role he played in developing the lives of young people.

But, Storm does hope the lawsuit has a positive impact. Parents need to know there are consequences to hitting SEND on accusatory emails.

Storm coached his last game for Honeoye exactly three years ago Sunday. Asked if he’d ever return to coach there, he paused.

“For all the years I was there, and then to be thrown out like I was bathwater — I think I would need an apology.”

For more, visit the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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