The parent of a former Nipomo High School student is suing the Lucia Mar Unified School District in federal court, claiming that a physical education coach forced her son into activities against the advice of doctors and later bullied the teen when she brought up the problems to school and district officials.
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 11, named the district and former Nipomo High School coach James Gross as defendants. At the crux of the suit are claims that Gross deprived the 16-year-old student of his rights under federal disability laws and put the student’s physical and mental health at risk.
The alleged harassment began during the 2013-2014 school year. The student, then a sophomore, was identified by the district as a disabled. The teen suffered from ADHD and a heart condition that causes shortness of breath and chest pains.
Despite the condition, the boy was still able to participate in sports and exercise and was a member of the school’s water polo and wrestling teams. The lawsuit stated that the student’s doctor had advised him to self-monitor and limit his activities should the symptoms begin to occur.
Gross was the student’s P.E. coach that year. One week early in the school year, students were running in hot weather. The sophomore began experiencing chest pains, and he started to walk, according to the lawsuit. Gross allegedly told the student that he was required to run. When the student told him about his condition, as well as a written plan with the school district that laid out his conditions and the accommodations under the auspices of the Federal Americans With Disabilities Act, Gross reportedly said that he didn’t care and expected him to “fully participate” until he got a note from a doctor, the lawsuit stated.
The student went to his mother, Pamela Webb, who took the matter to school officials. Eventually, a note, which the lawsuit claims was already on file with the school and a part of the student’s written plan, was given to Gross.
After the initial spat, the lawsuit claims that Gross bullied and harassed the student on several other occasions. The alleged retaliation included Gross getting the boy cut from the high school’s wrestling team, which he coached. In January 2014, he reportedly encouraged other students on the team to demote the teen from varsity to junior varsity, and strip him of his varsity letter. The teammates complied, and voted him off the varsity team.
As the conflict escalated, Gross allegedly continued to bully the student, at one point reportedly asking him when he was going to “fight his own battles,” according to the lawsuit.
Gross was removed from his position as the school’s wresting coach. Within days of a new coach being appointed, the team appeared in a Facebook photo wearing bright-yellow T-shirts proclaiming “bring back coach Gross.” Gross didn’t return as coach, and the student, on advice of the school’s principal, refrained from participating in wrestling.
The student is no longer on campus, and now participates in an independent study program in lieu of attending high school. The lawsuit claims that the harassment and hostility took a physical and mental toll on the young man, who began passing out toward the end of the school year.
“[The student] has suffered and continues to suffer severe emotional distress, requiring psychological care,” the suit states.
Gross is gone from Nipomo High, but not from the district itself. A district spokesperson confirmed that Gross was still employed with the district, but said LMUSD could not comment further on the lawsuit. The district’s website states that Gross is now employed as a P.E. coach at Arroyo Grande High School. He’s not listed as a coach for any of the school’s athletics teams.
According to the lawsuit, this isn’t the first time Gross has run into trouble at other campuses within the district. The suit alleges that Gross has “demonstrated an inability to work with and properly accommodate disabled individuals” in violation of state and federal laws.
Webb’s attorney, Robert May, didn’t provide a comment on the allegations to New Times in time for publication.
Judy McKelvey, Gross’ attorney, didn’t comment on the specific allegations of the lawsuit.
“Mr. Gross has always acted with the intent to act in his students’ best interest,” she said.
While Gross and his attorney were reticent to speak to New Times, several parents of his former NHS wrestling students spoke in his support. Parent Lonnie Rodriguez called the allegations against Gross “unfair.”
“He never had an issue with his students,” Rodriguez said. “There’s plenty of people who know him, and they know he’s a great guy who’s really dedicated to his students.”
Court records show that the lawsuit is ongoing. Gross has until June 8 to answer the complaint against him.
The lawsuit not only asks the court to award monetary damages, but calls for requiring the district to develop and implement policies to educate employees on federal disability laws, and provide disabled students with equal opportunities in physical education an extracurricular activities.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at [email protected].