Charter school won’t reconsider coach’s firing

Nichole Williams says Life School Waxahachie terminated her because she’s a lesbian but there’s nothing she can do about it

Williams.Nikki

DREAM DERAILED | Nichole Williams, shown in the Life School gym, had always dreamed of coaching high school girls basketball, a dream that was about to come true. But one day before basketball practice started, Williams was fired from Life School Waxahachie, and she says it’s because she is a lesbian.

JOHN WRIGHT  |
Senior Political Writer

wright@dallasvoice.com

WAXAHACHIE — Ever since she played girls basketball in high school, Nichole “Nikki” Williams has dreamed of one day coaching the sport.

This year her dream was about to come true after she was named varsity girls basketball coach at Life School Waxahachie, a charter high school 30 miles south of Dallas.

Then, just one day before basketball practice began in October, Williams was abruptly fired.

The 26-year-old Williams, who also taught ninth-grade geography and was an assistant volleyball coach, filed a grievance alleging she was terminated based on her sexual orientation, which reportedly became known to school officials after her fiancée began attending volleyball games this fall.

“I feel like they just ripped it all away from me for absolutely nothing,” Williams said. “That’s the hard part, and that’s what makes me sick.

“The story is, we’re still being persecuted,” Williams told Dallas Voice.

“That’s a strong word, but it’s true. The fact that as teachers in a professional world, you still have to hide who you are, it’s not fair. I don’t think anybody should have to hide who they are.”

An administrator at Life School, which has 3,700 students at five campuses in North Texas, including one in Oak Cliff, denied this week that Williams was fired for being gay. However, citing privacy concerns, he refused to elaborate on the reason for her dismissal.

Unfortunately for Williams, she may not have any legal recourse.

Texas is one of 29 states that lack bans on anti-gay job discrimination, which isn’t prohibited by federal law, either. And, although case law generally protects gay teachers at public schools, experts say courts have ruled that those provisions don’t apply to charter schools, even though they’re taxpayer-funded.

In her initial grievance against Life School, Williams requested reinstatement. But she’s since given up on that and now merely wants the termination removed from her record so she can pursue her dream of coaching basketball elsewhere.

“Basically, you’re looking at a 26-year-old teacher who for the rest of her life has a black mark because she’s been terminated,” said Williams’ fiancée, Jen DeSaegher. “She’ll always have to check the ‘I’ve been terminated’ box for the rest of her career, and that’s not going to go over well.”

‘More than just a coach’

During her three years at Life School, Williams said she received positive performance evaluations, promotions and even a letter of commendation from the superintendent.

Williams was also very popular among both students and parents, despite the fact that they knew she was gay in conservative Ellis County.

About 100 parents and more than 50 students at Life School Waxahachie — which has a total enrollment of roughly 300 — signed a petition calling for Williams to be reinstated.

“She is a passionate teacher who profoundly affects our children’s lives on a daily basis,” the petition states. “We cannot afford to lose such a valuable teacher and coach.”

In response to the petition, along with a steady barrage of emails and phone calls, Life School administrators set up a meeting with parents this week. Eleven parents gathered in a classroom at Life School Waxahachie on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 15, and demanded answers about Williams’ termination. But they got relatively few.

Charles Pulliam, Life School’s director of human resources, and Ena Meyers, principal of the Waxahachie campus, told parents they’re barred from sharing details about personnel matters and wanted to protect Williams’ privacy.

“We made the decision that was right for the kids,” said Pulliam, who asked the parents to trust the school with their children’s safety. “I really wish I could share more, but I can’t.”

Pulliam made vague references to the school’s mission statement and its “standards of excellence,” saying his decision to terminate Williams was based on “a global view.”

“I can tell you 100 percent, we did what we felt was right for Life School,” he said, calling the decision “painful.”

Although he provided no details, Pulliam confirmed to the parents that Williams was terminated based solely on an incident that took place on Thursday, Oct. 13.

According to Williams’ account of the incident, four volleyball players dropped by her classroom following school photographs instead of going to the remainder of their assigned class.

For Williams, it was a conference period, and she said she was in and out of the classroom. Williams maintains she repeatedly told the students they needed to go to their assigned class and that she wouldn’t vouch for them.

But the students didn’t leave, and they were later investigated for skipping class.

On Friday, Oct. 14, the students received one-day detentions.

On Monday, Oct. 17, Williams was placed on administrative leave, and on Tuesday, Oct. 18, she was terminated.

Williams acknowledged she should have reported the students.

“I expected to be in trouble and I knew I should have been,” she said. “But to be fired, I was shocked.”

The parents who signed the petition agreed, saying they feel the punishment was “extreme” and “disproportionate.”

At the meeting this week, parents complained that Williams was replaced two days later by someone who is “unqualified,” because he’s never coached basketball or girls sports. Williams’ replacement also recently resigned mid-year from an athletic director position in another district.

The parents also accused Life School officials of lying to their daughters, who were told after a volleyball game the same night Williams was fired that she was “moving on to other opportunities.” The parents said they only learned of Williams’ termination from their kids.

“She’s more than just a coach,” one parent told Pulliam and Meyers. “She loves her students.”

“I did not feel like my child was in any danger,” said another parent — a man wearing a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and work boots who spoke with a Southern drawl. “I wish the school had a lot more leaders like her.”

One parent asked point-blank whether Williams was fired due to her sexual orientation.

“What is her sexual orientation?” Pulliam responded.

“Lesbian,” the parent said.

Pulliam paused at length before saying softly, “Certainly I would never consider that.”

School says decision is final

Pulliam said later he wasn’t aware of Williams’ sexual orientation — even though it was highlighted in her grievance filed Oct. 25.

“I’ve only been here three months,” Pulliam told Dallas Voice in a phone interview Wednesday. “I really don’t know much about her other than what happened as part of this.”

Pulliam said sexual orientation isn’t included in Life School’s employment nondiscrimination policy. However, sexual orientation does appear in sections of the school’s Code of Ethics that govern employees’ conduct toward colleagues and students. Regardless, experts say the policies aren’t enforceable because Texas has no statute to back them up.  And Pulliam denied that Williams’ termination had anything to do with the fact that she’s gay.

“I don’t want it to be about that at all,” he said. “It never has been, and I really think that’s just the wrong path. We don’t wish any harm on Ms. Williams whatsoever.”

DeSaegher, Williams’ partner, said Life School’s board of directors is made up of people affiliated with conservative evangelical institutions, including Dallas Baptist University, Southwestern Assemblies of God University and The Oaks Fellowship.

But Pulliam declined to discuss the backgrounds of board members.

“It really doesn’t make sense to talk about that stuff,” he said. “This is about Life School doing the right thing for our students and about us looking to protect Ms. Williams and her rights.”

Asked about his personal views on homosexuality, Pulliam said, “My personal opinion is not important here at all.”

Pulliam also reiterated what he told the parents the night before, that Williams’ termination is final and that the school won’t remove it from her record.

When parents pleaded with Pulliam on Tuesday to allow Williams to move on, he admitted he had the authority to remove the termination from her record but said he wouldn’t — “because I’m confident we did the right thing.”

After the meeting, parents expressed frustration.

“My reaction was, I really don’t feel like we got anywhere,” said Jennifer McCoy. “I feel like he was dodging all of our questions.”

McCoy has a son and a daughter who attend Life School Waxahachie. Her daughter, a junior who plays both volleyball and basketball, has attended Life School since fourth grade.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” McCoy said when asked if she thinks Williams was fired because she’s gay. “Everything else, to me, it’s not adding up at all.”

Another parent, Wendy Williams, said she has four children who attend Life School, including a daughter who plays volleyball and basketball. Wendy Williams, no relation to Nichole, said her kids have attended Life School Waxahachie since it opened, but until now she’s never had a major issue with the administration.

“I think they tried to get rid of her because she’s gay,” Wendy Williams said. “They can’t say that, but I don’t see any other reasons.”

Wendy Williams said although she was raised “very conservative,” she doesn’t think Nichole Williams’ sexual orientation should be an issue.

“I don’t think it affected her coaching, and I don’t think it affected her relationship with the children,” Wendy Williams said. “I don’t think it matters.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

TX school district denies student was removed from cheerleading squad over gay kiss

Last Friday we told you about a male cheerleader at Alice High School in South Texas who said he’d been kicked off the squad — and suspended from school — for kissing another male student. The 17-year-old cheerleader said the kiss was caught on a school surveillance camera, and he claimed officials had targeted him because of his sexual orientation.

This afternoon, the Alice Independent School District released a statement saying the student’s removal from the cheerleading squad will remain in effect. The district said the student wasn’t removed from the squad for kissing another student. However, citing privacy concerns, the district says it cannot elaborate on the reason for his removal. Here’s the full text of the statement sent via email to Instant Tea (view the PDF here):

The Alice I.S.D. has recently reviewed the recent removal of a student from the Alice High School Cheerleading Squad. After reviewing the Alice I.S.D. Student Code of Conduct and the Cheer Program Handbook, the removal will stay in effect. The student’s parents are in agreement with the district’s decision. The student code of conduct and cheer handbook are designed to improve conduct and encourage students to adhere to their responsibilities as members of the school community. The student and parents are clearly aware that the student was not removed from the squad for kissing another student at school. While the student is free to discuss certain aspects of his discipline in the media, the District cannot discuss the specifics of this incident and must respect the privacy rights of the students involved in this matter.

The district’s statement today is similar to one released by the school principal late Friday, according to KRISTV.com:

In a written statement given to Six News, Principal Lucy Munoz stated “the district does not suspend students for kissing other students at school, regardless of the gender of the student.” However, the statement did not list a specific reason for the student’s suspension. The statement went on to say that the district is still reviewing the matter, but added that the “Cheer Program Handbook requires students to adhere to a higher standard of conduct than that which applies to the general student population.”

—  John Wright