By Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First
A version of this story appeared in the Vermont Standard newspaper in Woodstock this week
BURLINGTON — The longtime Woodstock Union High School snowboard coach should be reinstated to his post, according to one of the two students involved in a private discussion about transgender athletes that led to his firing, federal court records show.
Coach David J. Bloch, who was quietly fired on Feb. 9, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against School Superintendent Sherry Sousa and the Windsor Central Supervisory Union Board (now renamed Mountain Views Supervisory Union) in July. Also named as defendants are Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association and Heather Bouchey, interim Vermont Secretary of Education.
Bloch is seeking a preliminary injunction to get his job back now because lawyers on both sides of the case have indicated they believe the case will not be ready for a jury trial for almost a year. The injunction request was moved up from October to next week.
The lawyers recently filed a proposed schedule for the case that requires pre-trial discovery to be completed by May 8, 2024, pre-trial motions filed by June 10, 2024, and that the case will be ready for trial by Aug. 12, 2024.
Most of the nine lawyers listed in the case had a telephone conference call with Federal Judge Christina Reiss last Thursday, who is assigned to hear the case injunction request on Monday, Sept. 25. She urged the lawyers to be ready. Reiss said she does not plan to delay the hearing.
Sousa, Woodstock Athletic Director Jack Boymer, and Assistant Principal Cody Tancreti, who interviewed the students, were identified by the school’s lawyers as defense witnesses for the hearing next week. Reiss has set aside a full day for the hearing and said more time could be scheduled as needed, but wants to have the witnesses heard first.
As part of a court filing last week, Bloch included a series of screenshots of text messages exchanged with one of the two students involved in the private conversation that led to his firing. The texts were exchanged on three separate days between Feb. 9, the night of the firing, and March 8 as the season concluded.
The girl, identified in court papers as “Student 2” thanked Bloch in a text for a “good conversation” and said it “didn’t affect [her] in anyway nor the team.”
She went on to say Bloch had “done so much for the team and [her]” and she wanted the coach to “get back to being [the team’s] coach” because it wouldn’t “be the same with out” him, court records show.
Bloch’s 32-page lawsuit and a Vermont Standard investigation indicated the original conversation took place in a ski lodge at Jay Peak before a snowboard meet on Feb. 8. A boy on the Woodstock team said he thought due to biology it was improper for somebody born as a male to be able to compete against girls in sports, the lawsuit said. Student 2 responded by accusing him of being transphobic, the lawsuit said.
A transgender student was competing on behalf of neighboring Hartford High School that day, the Standard has been told. The Hartford student was not mentioned by name.
Bloch, who was at the table with the two students, joined the conversation by noting people express themselves in different ways and there can be masculine women and feminine men, the lawsuit said. He said as a matter of biology males and females have different DNA.
In an effort to illustrate the differences, Bloch gave the example of an archaeologist digging up bones would categorize them as belonging to a male or female because of the inherent differences, the lawsuit said.
The conversation was not disruptive, was respectful and lasted less than three minutes, Bloch said in his lawsuit. The transgender student was never mentioned by name, he said.
In the text exchange, Student 2 said she also feared she was the one that cost him his job, but Bloch said in response that the complaint apparently came from Hartford High School. Bloch did not say why he thought it came from Hartford.
“Is it my fault that you aren’t the couch ( sic) anymore?” the student asked in her text at about 7 p.m. on Feb. 9, about four hours after he was fired by Sousa.
“Apparently someone shared our conversation with Hartford. Hartford then called the superintendent, apparently that’s harmful and abusive language they made me out to be a monster,” Bloch responded.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it maybe someone over heard it I’m so sorry I feel like it was my fault because I was the one who had the conversation with you,” she wrote back.
“You’ve done so much for the team and me you have pushed everyone to places some of us think we can’t,” the team member added.
Bloch responded, “I’m so glad you told me this. I was afraid it was you…”
In the same text exchange, he later noted he didn’t need the coaching stipend, “so I’m speaking up for all the other coaches.”
“The termination letter said that I used abusive and harmful language. But all we talked about was DNA, and an archeologist, digging up a body, 1000 years from now and then you educated me, which was awesome!” he wrote.
As the exchange continued on Feb. 9, Student 2 said, “I want to talk about this I was called into the office today about it and I said it didn’t affect me in anyway nor the team.”
“Well, that’s very good to hear,” Bloch responded.
Bloch, in a sworn affidavit filed in support of his preliminary injunction request, said other school employees feel muzzled by the district.
“Other Windsor Central Supervisory District employees are afraid to speak out on issues related to the immutability of sex and the appropriateness of a teenage male competing against teenage females in an athletic competition,” Bloch said in the affidavit.
“Those employees understand that discussion of these issues will incur discipline under the school district’s Harassment, Hazing and Bullying Policy and procedures…” he wrote. He also noted that the VPA and the State AOE have similar policies.
“Whenever issues of immutability of sex and the appropriateness of males competing against females come up in conversation, school district employees who hold the same beliefs as I do change the subject or otherwise do not give their opinion because they fear discipline,” Bloch said in his sworn affidavit.
Bloch is claiming five causes of action including the lack of due process according to his lawsuit. Four of the causes focus on the First Amendment, including unlawful retaliation and prior restraint by limiting speech.
He seeks reinstatement to the seasonal post that paid him $4,439 last winter. He also wants a lifting of a ban that he can never coach again in the district and to have all records about the termination purged.
The defendants are fighting the preliminary injunction request.
Sousa and the district have yet to respond to the actual claims or representations outlined in more than 230 numbered paragraphs in the lawsuit. In the motion to reject the three claims, Sousa and the district said they disagree with Plaintiffs’ accounting of the events leading up to his termination. They did not elaborate.
Nichols and Bouchey maintain they had no involvement in investigating Bloch, no involvement in the termination decision or to ratify the action, court records show.
Bloch claims he was handed a termination notice by Sousa one day after the reported conversation, but the superintendent admitted the investigation had not been completed. Sousa reportedly said she did not have all the details of the Feb. 8 conversation, but Bloch would get the final report the day after the meeting, his lawsuit said. Bloch said he asked repeatedly for the report, but five months later he was still waiting.