“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Chad Readler wrote a January 2020 opinion in Chisholm v. St. Marys School Dist. Board of Educ. that refused to allow parents to try to prove that a high school football coach inflicted severe emotional distress on their children on “a near-daily basis” over “an extended time.” As the dissent explained, even the majority agreed that the coach’s conduct “directly resulted” in the students’ emotional distress, and an expert concluded that one suffered “mental health and psychological problems as a result” of his treatment by the coach and the school.
Paul Douglas Frye has been a high school teacher and football coach for over a quarter of a century. As even Readler’s opinion recognized, concerns about Frye harassing students he dealt with “are nearly as old.” In 1995, he was given a “written reprimand” by the school district that employed him for using “unacceptable obscene language” and “becoming physical” with a student. In 1998, when he first started at St. Marys School District, he was “rebuked in writing” for “subjecting his players to degrading language.” After he took a job at a neighboring school district, a criminal complaint was filed against him for harassing and verbally degrading students, which resulted in a consent agreement with the Ohio Department of Education.
Frye returned to St. Marys in 2014, where Dane Chisholm and Reid Lininger were students on the school team. Due to community concerns about Frye’s previous behavior, the district superintendent and athletic director undertook to monitor and supervise him. Nonetheless, early in his tenure, Frye continued to verbally harass students on the football team, including Chisholm and Lininger. In front of other teammates, Frye called them and a few others names like “pussy, bitch, and pretty boy” on “a daily basis.” Frye later accused Chisholm of “throwing” a crucial game, and Chisholm was removed from the team.
After Chisholm’s and Leininger’s fathers filed a complaint with the school board, the St. Marys School Board initiated an investigation into Frye’s behavior. The investigator did not include Lininger in the interview process, and although others acknowledged Frye’s “intermittent swearing,” the investigator’s final report determined that disciplinary action against him was unnecessary. Both boys continued to suffer harassment and psychological injury, and Lininger had to withdraw from the school.
The boys’ parents filed suit against Frye and the school district. The district court granted summary judgment against them, declining to allow them to present their case to a jury. An appeal to the Sixth Circuit followed.
All three judges on the panel agreed that there was no proper claim against Frye and the school board under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But they disagreed on the parents’ claims that Frye intentionally inflicted emotional distress. In Readler’s majority opinion, he initially dismissed Frye’s conduct as “verbal motivational tactics,” although acknowledging that it was “distasteful.” He went on to praise “football’s popularity” and to suggest that the “sometimes crude or outlandish antics” of even high school coaches are “tolerated in favor of on-the-field success.” With this background, he concluded that Frye’s actions were not “so extreme and outrageous as to go beyond all possible bonds of decency” as required by Ohio law, and ruled that the students’ parents should not have the opportunity to prove the contrary to a jury.
Judge Helene White, appointed by President Bush at the suggestion of Democratic senators, strongly dissented. She pointed out that this case involved a teacher and coach who harassed high school students, not “a professional or collegiate football coach employing tough coaching methods to motivate consenting adults.” Instead, she explained, the “vulgar and derogatory nature” of Frye’s “persistent” conduct was “enough for a jury to conclude that he intended to cause Plaintiffs emotional distress” and that his “actions were so extreme and outrageous as to fall outside the bounds of decency.”
All students, including student athletes, deserve a learning environment free from threats and harassment. But Readler’s decision minimizes harassment as nothing more than a rite of passage and legitimizes Frye’s behavior as simply tough football culture. His misjudgment in this case robs these students’ parents of the opportunity to present the case to a jury, and will make it harder for other students who have endured harassment in a school setting to seek justice for their emotional distress in court.