The Belgrade School Board upheld a trustee committee decision last week to deny a grievance appeal brought on by the Belgrade High School softball coach after a handful of athletes and parents accused the coach of mistreating players. Wednesday’s vote paved the way for not renewing the coach’s contract in the coming months.
Trustees met in a closed session last Wednesday for about one hour and 35 minutes to discuss the issue among themselves, their attorney Debra Silk, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders and coach Mike Neubauer. The law allows for school officials to close public meetings for personnel reasons and lawsuit strategy. When the doors were opened, the board unanimously voted to uphold the three-member trustee grievance committee’s earlier decision.
Board Chairman Peter Morgan, whose daughter is on the team, did not attend the meeting, and Trustee Ted Mongeon abstained but did not publicly say why. The district handbook discourages trustees from abstentions and encourages an explanation for doing so to explain any conflict of interest.
When asked about the next steps after the meeting adjourned, attorney Debra Silk said the process had concluded. Silk said the future of Neubauerer’s coaching position is another matter and will be decided when the board votes on hiring spring season coaches sometime in the near future.
HOW WE GOT HERE – A NARRATIVE
Neubauer, known throughout the state, was hired two years ago to coach the softball team and help obtain a state championship that had been elusive for the Panthers. Since his hiring, the coach has led the team to two State A championships for both seasons, a 40-0 Class A record, an overall record of 45-3, and was named by his peers as Montana High School Association Coach of the Year both years at the Panther helm.
“I know winning isn’t everything, but at the same token I think they hired me to win,” Neubauer said told the Belgrade News. “I don’t win at all costs. That’s not it. It’s about life and life lessons. It’s about being good teammates. And that’s our philosophy – ‘We, not me.’ We really stress that. It takes a team.”
Everyone applauds the wins, all sides said. But during that time some parents started to question Neubauer’s tactics. Two separate players’ parents – one father and one mother – spoke with the Belgrade News recently “to tell their side of the story.” The parents said eight kids are involved in the complaint against the coach. But throughout this process the parents of only four athletes were actively involved in public meetings. The parents did not want to reveal their names.
The pair said an environment of harassment, intimidation, and bullying by the coach occurred to the point where their daughters “were afraid to go to practice; they were afraid to make a mistake during a game,” among other things. The parents said the issue isn’t about “a coach that yells” or about playing time and field positions. The issue, the parents say, is the coach “goes too far.” In fact, the parents said the environment affects their daughters’ desire to play the game and deflates their confidence.
Their daughters aren’t “special snowflakes or buttercups,” they said. The kids are driven and participate in softball programs throughout the Western states to the tune of “thousands of dollars” to hone their skills, both said. Neubauer knows “everything about the game,” the parents said. But he just “takes it too far” when it comes to coaching.
The parents also said an environment of retaliation, or the fear of it, exists in both the players’ and parents’ psyche. The fear of retribution is what kept the parents and players from seeking a remedy. Even so, some players and parents talked to the coach, the pair said, and when nothing changed they talked to Athlete Director Rick Phillips.
Both Neubauer and Phillips deny this.
“I’d beg to differ,” Phillips said last week.
Phillips said he was only contacted once two years ago when the players changed into their uniforms on the bus behind blankets. The parents also cited this is as a concern. Phillips said he addressed the issue with the coach. Neubauer said the practice of changing on the bus was in place before he was hired, and said he thought it odd, but that’s what the team did.
“I didn’t put this changing-on-the-bus thing in,” he said. “On our first road trip they said, ‘well, we’re going to change.’ Oh, I said, we didn’t think about that. So, I told them to put a blanket up. It’s a history of the program. They’ve always changed on the bus. I didn’t ask them to change. I didn’t make them change on the bus. They’ve always changed on the bus.”
THE DISTRICT'S COMPLAINT PROCEDURE
From here is where many on the coach’s side say things went awry. The common complaint from Neubauer’s supporters is that district rules were not followed.
The Belgrade School District has a policy in place, the Uniform Complaint Procedure, “to be used for all complaints except those governed by a collective bargaining agreement,” according to the district policy manual.
The policy has a five-level procedure, with each level providing the ability to appeal. They are as follows:
• Level 1: Informal – An individual with a complaint goes to appropriate teacher, counselor or building administrator. In this case, it would be coach Neubauer;
• Level 2: Building Administrator – If the complaint can’t be resolved it goes up the ladder within 30 calendar days of the event. An investigation will start and the administrator will respond to the findings in writing. In this case, it would be Athlete Director Rick Phillips or Belgrade High School Principal Paul Lamb;
• Level 3: Superintendent – The complaint continues up the ladder. The superintendent will launch an investigation and announce findings in writing;
• Level 4: The Board – Continuing up the ladder, the complaint is appealed and the board can hear the matter at its regular meeting, or can appoint a committee to hear the appeal and make a recommendation to the board. The board will hear the recommendation and vote on the matter;
• Level 5: County Superintendent – The matter will be decided by the county superintendent if the issue is within the jurisdiction of the office.
Neubauer and his supporters said Level 1 and 2 were skipped, and the issue went straight to Level 3 when the complaint was filed in July.
When asked to clarify, Superintendent Godfrey Saunders refused to comment and issued the following statement on Monday:
“As you are likely aware, the District has a legal obligation to protect the privacy rights of students and others. Given that all parties involved in this particular matter have asserted their individual privacy rights, including Mr. Neubauer, the District will not be making any public comments relating to this matter.”
Athletic Director Phillips speculated the situation could have been resolved if the proper procedures were followed. In this case, Phillips said the complaint policy was not followed. But parents said the fear of retribution was real for them and their daughters.
Other coaches in the district have said the policy was reworked years ago to ensure an even-handed approach when it came to disputes between parents and coaches. In this particular case, district coaches are concerned the rules “were just bypassed with no intention of following the protocol set in place,” Belgrade High School assistant football coach Toby Robinson wrote to the board in defense of Neubauer.
“In conclusion, this District has managed to bend the rules, bypass protocol and diminish the culture of our coaches and Athletic Director’s in this district,” he wrote. “I can’t even begin to tell you how the culture has shifted within the coaching ranks this past month. Believe me, coaches from all sports are talking amongst each other. There is an overwhelming feeling of distrust, lack of respect and overall unappreciation for what we, as coaches, do for our athletes.”
However, a careful read of the policy shows other actions can take place, despite the recommended five levels.
“The District will endeavor to respond to and resolve complaints without resorting to this formal complaint procedure and, when a complaint is filed, to address the complaint promptly and equitably.”
The policy also allows for the superintendent to jump in at will.
“The Superintendent has the authority to contract with an independent investigator at any time during the complaint procedure process.”
Even so, Neubauer places most of the blame on one parent who also happens to be the chairman of the Belgrade School Board, Peter Morgan.
“It just amazes me how one school board member, a parent of a softball player, with a personal vendetta can break several school policies in order to oust me as a coach, not to mention breaking every team policy there is,” Neubauer said.
After discussing concerns about the complaint procedure levels, he concluded with, “The complaint was filed on July 8 well after the Belgrade softball team had their two best seasons ever in school history. They skipped all the Belgrade High School uniform complaint procedure until it gets to the part where the school superintendent takes over. I think you can read between the lines from there. I firmly believe that there wasn’t anything fair about this whole process.”
Again, the district declined to comment.
Neubauer and his supporters said the entire situation came to a head this summer during an off-season game not associated with the school district. The coach, who was acting as assistant coach at this game, said the team was coming off a long season and there wasn’t too much expectation placed on them. But then something happened.
“We were coming off a pressure-packed high school season and won a state title,” he said. “I didn’t push them. It was pretty relaxed. I’m the assistant coach anyway. We were playing a team about half as good as we are and we are stinking it up. We had nine errors in less than an hour. And then in the middle of the game I pulled them up and said ‘Girls, this is a disgrace to the game. Let’s pick it up a little bit.’”
The coach said after the game, Trustee Chairman Peter Morgan approached him.
“I go to talk to him and he comes unglued on me with his finger in my face (asking) ‘what did you say to them?’ I said I told them this was a disgrace to the game and let’s pick it up a little bit. And he said ‘I want nothing but positive encouragement from you. You got that.’ Just yelling at me. I didn’t say anything. He stuck out his hand and I shook his hand just in shock.”
The following day, Neubauer said he approached Morgan.
“I said, ‘Listen, Peter, you don’t tell me how to coach. If you don’t like what goes on out there then you can come and get your daughter,’” he said.
From there, Neubauer and his supporters said meetings were called by Morgan to discuss the coach’s tactics. A couple of parents contacted Neubauer and told the coach something was brewing to get rid of him. The parents who filed the complaint deny this and said the process to address Neubauer started long before the summer game in question. They also said singling out Morgan is inaccurate and unfair because the effort was a group activity.
ATHLETIC DIRECTOR LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION
After the complaint was filed in July, two separate investigations followed conducted by Phillips and Superintendent Saunders.
In a Sept. 7 letter to softball parents, Phillips discussed changes to the program with the coach regarding communicating with players. While Phillips said he did not witness any of the issues brought up in the complaint, he acknowledged parents’ concerns.
“It is apparent that changes are necessary and those changes will occur,” he wrote.
For instance, the coach is loud on the field when calling out players.
“While Mike strives for perfection, often times the message he is delivering is seen as ‘demeaning or belittling’ by some,” Phillips wrote. “It is no secret that our softball coach is loud. Often times this is how the message is delivered, loudly, accompanied by some body language that has been described as being ‘intimidating.’”
And he is blunt.
“The second concern was ‘public humiliation’ and the correction of mistakes,” Phillips wrote. “Once again, Mike and I discussed this and have agreed how mistakes made out on the field should be handled. If there is a mistake made out on the field, I have asked Mike to wait until the athlete returns to the dugout to discuss this mistake privately, keeping in mind, our first behavioral change, how the message is delivered.”
The parents said what Phillips described is, in essence, most of what they mean when the coach “goes too far.”
Neubauer said Phillips talked to him about his volume and tone when it comes to addressing players, and he didn’t deny either issue.
“I think one of my weak points is my tone of voice sometimes,” the coach said last week. “I think that’s the change. I work on it all the time anyway, but at the same time I probably need to work on that more. That’s all I can think what some of this is about.”
Phillips recommended the rehiring of Neubauer with the caveat of implementing changes. The parents appealed the athletic director’s decision.
But he also told parents airing grievances early with him and the coach is paramount to implementing change.
“It is my understanding that concerns were not brought to the attention of the coach or the athletic director for fear nothing would change or there would be retribution against their child,” Phillips wrote. “I can only tell you that I cannot institute change without the concern being brought to my attention and I would never allow any retribution be taken against anyone bringing a concern to the attention of the administration, in fact it is a written policy. This is the only way that the behavior can be dealt with.”
The parents did say retaliation was one of the reasons for keeping silent over the years, along with their daughters’ pleas to keep quiet.
Even so, Phillips took it a step further in an interview last week and said such thoughts are offensive, an assault on his integrity, and his ability to lead the sports program.
“I take this very seriously,” he said.
SUPERINTENDENT LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION
Almost a month later, Saunders issued the results of his investigation on Oct. 1.
In his letter to parents and Neubauer, Saunders disputed claims the issue went directly to him. He said the issue was treated as a Level 2 grievance issued to Phillips. When Phillips didn’t find fault, the parents appealed to Saunders who started his investigation.
Saunders said the investigation revolved around two main points in the District Coaches Athletic Handbook. They are as follows:
“• Abuse directed toward participants either mentally, verbally or physically. By using offensive language or swearing, which is prohibited by the coach’s handbook and/or
• Harassment, intimidation or bullying or hazing by either harming a student or damaging a student’s property; knowingly placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm to the student or damage to the student’s property; or creating a hostile educational or athletic environment, prohibited by District Policy 3226.”
After interviewing coaches, Phillips, parents and players, Saunders said “two allegations can be substantiated: (1) Abuse directed towards participants either mentally, verbally or physically. By using offensive language or swearing, which is prohibited by the Coaches’ Handbook, and (2) Harassment, intimidation or bullying.”
Even though some players did not share those beliefs, it “does not invalidate those student-athletes who have been reported that they have been subjected to this type of behavior (actual or perceived) on the part of Coach Neubauer,” Saunders wrote.
But before announcing his findings, Saunders said the whole ordeal could have been avoided if everyone involved stepped in sooner.
“I learned much from my investigation,” he wrote. “The AD said that both he and Coach Neubauer understand that changes need to be made to the program. However, those changes did not occur overnight. Those changes should have been addressed long ago, and maybe this situation could have been avoided. Additionally, the AD should have been able to say without hesitation that the allegations against Coach Neubauer had no merit. He could not do that. The parents of these athletes should have intervened sooner as well, even though their daughters had asked them not to say anything. Maybe that would have kept us from being where we are today.”
Coach Neubauer appealed Saunders’ decision to the board.
A curious sidebar to these events, coach supporters say, is neither Neubauer or Phillips have officially seen the grievance filed against the coach. When Neubauer asked for the document, he was denied by the district. The coach said district officials told him his entire file would be up for public scrutiny even if the parents’ and players’ names were redacted.
Again, the district denied comment.
THE SCHOOL BOARD INVESTIGATES
As laid out in the complaint policy, the board formed a three-member committee made up of Trustees Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, Bob Marx, and Davey Lynn Haglund to hear Neubauer’s appeal on Dec. 10.
Following a 4 hour, 27 minute meeting, the committee unanimously voted to deny Neubauer’s appeal after hearing from people on both sides of the issue.
That meeting lead to Wednesday’s meeting last week where the entire board, save for Chairman Peter Morgan, who was absent, and Trustee Ted Mongeon’s abstention, voted unanimously to uphold the committee’s recommendation to deny the coach’s appeal.
The rest of the story will play out when it comes time for the board to renew contracts for spring coaches That vote should be held in the coming months.