VCSD cites emails alleging Baron’s ‘abuse’ of players

VOORHEESVILLE — The Voorheesville Central School District in its latest court filing has denied the allegations of former varsity girls’ basketball coach, Robert Baron, who claims the district fraudulently induced him to resign. Baron sued last year to get his coaching job back.

The school district is now accusing Baron of being abusive toward his players. In response, Baron included a handwritten note from Superintendent Brian Hunt that says Hunt asked the player at the center of the controversy if she felt threatened by Baron, to which she replied, “No.”

On Dec. 27, 2018, Kimberly A. O’Connor, an acting Supreme Court justice in Albany County Court, had ruled that five of the six claims made by Baron had merit and allowed his suit to move forward. On Jan. 7, Baron’s amended complaint was filed with two new causes of action based on O’Connor’s ruling.

A separate motion was also made by New York State United Teachers on behalf of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association and its president, Kathleen Fiero, seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.

The school district is also seeking to have the suit dismissed.

Also, for the first time in any of its filings, the school district included emails from what it says are players, former players, or parents that allege among other things, Baron had:

— Hit players in the back of their heads;

— Pulled a player’s ponytail in order to move her around the court;

— Thrown a clipboard directly over a player’s head, “snapping in half” as it hit the wall behind her; and

— Mentally abused his players.  

 Five emails are included in the school district’s answer to Baron’s amended complaint. The emails have been included in a court filing because the district is answering Baron’s complaint; previously, it was challenging the legal sufficiency of the complaint.

On Feb. 4, Harold Gordon, Baron’s lawyer, filed a reply to the district’s counterclaim. The filing included items from Baron’s Voorheesville School District personnel file that the school district did not include in its Jan. 25 court filing.

Referring to the district’s omission of items that were favorable to Baron, Gordon said, “We think that any fair-minded person would be truly shocked and astounded by what took place under these circumstances.”

William Nolan, attorney for the school district, said he could not comment on personnel matters.

One item in the filing is a handwritten note by Hunt from Dec. 15, 2017, about a month after Baron resigned. That note, according to the court documents, “memorialize[s] a conversation between the initial complaining player, Mr. Hunt, Mr. [Athletic Director Joseph] Sapienza, and Principal Laura Schmidt wherein the complaining player stated that Petitioner had never threatened her.”

Hunt’s handwritten note says that he asked the player about a letter she had sent to Sapienza and “specifically, did she feel Mr. Baron had threatened her, she said ‘no.’” Hunt, according to his note, then tells the player that if she had “anything to report, you can do so at anytime.”

The player, according to Hunt, had written the letter in anger because of an article that had appeared in The Enterprise; the note does not specify the article. By Dec. 15, 2017, the date on Hunt’s handwritten note, three news stories and one editorial about Baron had been published in The Enterprise.

Hunt, responding to the player’s concerns about Baron, “assured her that the decision about the coach was final and that he would not be reinstated.”

Baron had been told by Sapienza that “the floodgates opened,” referring to the complaints the district had received about the long-time coach and former school board member.

The emails submitted by the district, Gordon said, “look highly suspicious” because of the times they were received. The timing, said Gordon, “obviously, is very coordinated.” The emails sent in Baron’s favor were received within 12 hours of each other.

Three of the anti-Baron emails were received on Nov. 15, 2017 (another was received on Nov. 16, 2018, and the final on Dec. 15, 2017), the day before Baron met with Voorheesville Superintendent Brian Hunt and Sapienza for the third time after being placed on administrative leave on Nov. 8, 2017.

At that third meeting, according to Baron, Hunt told him: “I don’t think it’s going to work. We are going to go in a different direction.”

On Nov. 21, 2017, Baron resigned — which, according to the school board’s meeting minutes was effective Nov, 17, 2017.

The school district’s emails

In the first email, received by Hunt and high school Principal Laura Schmitz on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at 12:19 a.m., the player says she is “worried [redacted] upon coach Baron’s return [to coaching].”

Based on her own personal experiences with Baron, Emailer One writes, she was not surprised to hear of what she says was Baron’s treatment of a player whose named is redacted in the court papers. In Baron’s April 2017 deposition, the player is referred to as Student 1.

“I can say that I was shocked and extremely proud to hear that she was finally taking a stand in reporting his actions,” she wrote of Student 1.

Baron, in his deposition, recounted the alleged incident: “So at that point we get up to do our warmups, some stretching in place and so forth, and as I’m walking by Student 1 [throughout the deposition, the players’ names are used, but in the transcript they are identified by numbers], she says Student 1 says, ‘Coach, I have a conflict on Friday morning. I have a senior all star game.’ I was disappointed as she had been dishonest and not told me the previous night. So I say, ‘Student 1, if I had a gun, I could shoot you,’  just so disappointed she didn’t tell me up front. So I kind of took a breath and said, ‘But if you are going to play, if you want to go and you want to play, just be careful and don’t get hurt.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ And then I walked on.”

Emailer One said that she often cried after leaving games and practices and, on one more than one occasion, had “seriously questioned quitting basketball all together.”

Since her first encounter with Baron, Emailer One says, she had been subjected to mistreatment and to the “truly abusive nature of his coaching.”

“[Redacted] playing for coach Baron left me feeling completely defeated,” she wrote.

The second email, sent to Hunt and Schmitz on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at 8:47 p.m., appears to have been written by a former player, who wrote, “When I was [redacted], I had a very similar experience” with Baron as Student 1.

Baron had constantly demeaned and degraded Emailer Two for, what she says, was a lack of “varsity knowledge.” He also denied the team “adequate” water breaks, Emailer Two wrote, and would be very physical in practice drills.

It appears that, based on what is written and redacted in the email, that Emailer Two tried to report what was happening to Sapienza. “[Redacted] to Sapienza in [redacted] and absolutely nothing was done,” the second email states.

In the third email, sent to Sapienza, Hunt, and Schmitz on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at 10:21 p.m., the writer says she is “emailing you all on behalf of the girls basketball team both [redacted] in regards to coach Baron.”

Baron, Emailer Three says, on a number of occasions, had been both mentally and physically aggressive. She claims that Baron, “hit me and many other girls on the back of the head,” slapped the emailer and a teammate on the back, and “he would sometimes move me by pulling my braid/ponytail to move me around the court.”

Emails four and five make similar claims against Baron.            

Gordon claims that the language, verbiage, and wording of the emails is “suspiciously similar,” and not the product of high school students; rather, the emails were written by “adults with an agenda,” he asserts.

Asked if the the email writers would be deposed, Gordon answered, “Yes.”

Another email critical of Baron

The Feb. 4 filing by Baron’s lawyer of items in his school personnel file, in addition to three emails extolling his virtues, a fourth email — sent on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at 10 p.m. — from the mother of the player at the center of the incident to the Voorheesville Board of Education with school administrators copied on the email.

The mother claimed that Baron had repeatedly said “many demeaning and degrading things” to her daughter over the years. And that, there were at least two other incidents between Baron and players that had been reported to school administrators, the parent wrote.

In addition to telling her daughter, “If I had a gun, I could shoot you,” the mother claims that Baron, the day after the first incident, also said to her daughter, “That if she twisted her ankle, he would “twist her neck.’” The player had informed Baron she would be missing practice in order to play in a soccer game.

Also included in the Feb. 4 filing was an email chain between the player’s mother and Baron’s wife, Deborah, where the mother asks that Baron attend a basketball tournament that her daughter was playing in.

Defending Baron

A May 18 email sent to Hunt from the father of a player included a petition that had been signed by 15 parents (there appear to be at least three married couples — six parents — who signed) of varsity and junior-varsity basketball players requesting that Baron be reinstated as coach.

On Feb. 1, Gordon told The Enterprise that he had obtained Baron’s Voorheesville personnel file, and said, “I can tell you that unequivocally [it is] unblemished, and whatever reviews he got over the years were completely positive.”

Asked about Baron’s personnel file, Nolan said, “I can’t talk about his personnel file. I can’t talk about that at this point because it is a personnel matter, and it’s not public information.”

Baron’s Feb. 4 filing included three favorable emails that had been in his personnel file.

The first email, written by a parent who had a daughter on the team as well as a daughter who was a former player, was received by Hunt and Sapienza on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at 9:18 p.m.

In the email, the parent says Baron had consistently encouraged his daughters to work hard both on the court and in the classroom. “I trust him implicitly to help my daughter become a better basketball player and a better person,” the parent wrote.

Baron had also written several letters of recommendation for the parent’s older daughter, the court filing says, “and made calls to several of his colleagues to help her secure a position.”

The second email, from the older daughter of the first emailer, was received by Sapienza and forwarded to Hunt on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, at 7:46 a.m.

The former player said that she thought losing Baron as the girls’ varsity coach “would be a big mistake.”

Baron was one of the toughest coaches the former player had ever had, she wrote, but she felt he always had her best interests in mind, and “always truly cared about the well being of every one of his players.”

An undated third email included in the Feb. 4 filing is sent from a just-graduated player to Baron, thanking him for the support and opportunity he had given her in the prior season. The player thanked Baron for pushing the team “even when things didn’t look as promising,” and even thanked him for “using harsh words to tell us the truth but saying exactly what we need to hear.”

Asked if the third email in Baron’s personnel file was sent directly to the administration on his behalf or if it had first been given to Baron who then passed it along, Gordon said he “believed” that Baron sent it to the administration.

Investigation?

Baron’s Feb. 4 filing states that the school district had had the positive statements in its possession when it conducted its investigation into the Nov. 7 incident. Baron claims that, over the course of the investigation, the emailers in his favor were never contacted, “let alone interviewed, by the District.”

In a Nov. 14, 2018 meeting among Baron, Hunt, and Sapienza, according to Baron’s April 2017 deposition, he was told by Hunt that the investigation into the allegation had taken place. According to Baron, Hunt said, “We have some concerns about you may have been tough with some of the girls.” And, according to Baron, Hunt said, “So we are a little concerned about a few issues.”

According to Gordon, no investigation had taken place because there was no record of it in Baron’s personnel file.

Gordon was asked: Had there been investigation, would the findings of that investigation been included in Mr. Baron’s personnel file?

He answered, “Well, yes.”

The same question was asked of Nolan, who said, “I can’t answer that for you.”

“They never did any investigation at all,” Gordon claims. “They just simply accepted the word of the three complaints that they had, and ignored the [positive] letters that they had.”

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