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Former Coach Sues Painesville Schools Over Transgender Discrimination

Updated: 12:36 p.m., Friday, Aug. 14, 2020

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that discriminating against a person based on their gender identity was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42-year-old Chamar Peterson was paying close attention. 

Peterson is suing the Painesville City Local School District, alleging that he was passed over for a high school coaching job because he’s transgender, and eventually forced out of the district altogether. Peterson’s attorney, Sean Sobel of the firm Sobel, Wade & Mapley, said the Supreme Court's landmark ruling protects transgender individuals from workplace discrimination.

Basketball has been a part of Peterson’s life since he was a kid in Detroit. Peterson played four years of women’s college basketball at Oberlin College and coached basketball at the college and high school level.  In his free time, he likes taking his sons to play basketball and running drills at neighborhood parks.

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Chamar Peterson runs through a basketball drill with two of his sons at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]

The last time he was part of a competitive team, was as an assistant coach for the Thomas Harvey High School varsity girls’ basketball team in the Painesville City Local School District. Peterson remembers when the girls won the 2015 Chagrin Valley Conference championship and cut down the basketball net after winning the game, calling the experience “amazing.”

“They were the underdogs that nobody thought would make it. We were actually ranked 11th that year and we won the whole thing,” Peterson said.

At the time, Peterson was also an intervention specialist, working with high-risk kids at Harvey High, a job he loved and held for 12 years. When Peterson gave the district a heads up that he was transitioning from a woman to a man, “there were no issues,” he said.

But in 2018, the girls’ varsity basketball head coach, John Sams, announced he was stepping down and urged Peterson to apply for his job. Sams said looking at the assistant coaches who could potentially take his place, he felt Peterson was “the best candidate.”

“When I knew Chamar was applying, it was like a blessing,” Sams said, “because when you pour your heart and soul into something for so many years and you build it up into something that's tangible, you don't want to see that go down the tubes. That’s the bottom line.”

And Peterson said he was ready and eager to take on the responsibility.

“I really, really wanted to do a good job,” Peterson said. “I was excited. I had a five year goal plan I wanted to initiate that I gave them.”

But Sobel alleges Painesville schools was never interested in a transgender person in that prominent of a role.

“Things changed once he decided he wanted to be more visible,” Sobel said. “When he decided that he wanted to take on this role that would be visible to the community, work closer with parents, with boosters, with the athletic department, that's when there seemed to become a problem.”

Peterson said, instead of interviewing with the athletic director like other candidates in prior years, he had to face a hiring panel that included parents.

“Well, when I put my hat into the ring, they changed the dynamics. Now we had a panel. Now we have parents. Now we had a whole new interview system that they had never had in years,” he said.

Parents and students spoke out against him at board meetings. Ultimately, the district gave the job to another applicant, an assistant coach who worked outside of the district.

At a May 2018 school board meeting, Painesville Superintendent Josh Englehart told the school board why Peterson didn’t get the head coach job.

“There was one candidate who, in the opinion of the panel, across the board, who was not up to the level of quality as the other two candidates,” Englehart said. 

The teachers’ union took the matter to an arbitrator who said the head coach job had to go to Peterson because he was in fact qualified, and already a district employee. 

Months later, Peterson was placed on administrative leave, with the school district citing “educator misconduct” due to instances of him logging onto a tax preparation website while at work.

Peterson acknowledges that he ran a tax prep company on the side and logged onto the website here or there, but said it never interfered with his job at the school. 

His lawsuit alleges the district went so far as to "manufacture allegations" in retaliation against Peterson and threatened his teaching license. Peterson said he felt forced to quit.

“I said ‘Whatever it is you suspect that I did, let me be disciplined like any other worker and have corrective action and go from there,’” Peterson said. “They said, ‘No, we want him gone’. So that was my only option. I could have stayed and fought it, but I have a family.”

The Painesville School District denied ideastream’s request for an interview and instead sent a statement: “Peterson was performing work for his personal tax business while he should have been instructing District students, in violation of the District’s established policies. Peterson’s voluntary resignation and the circumstances leading up to his resignation were unrelated to his sex or transgender status."

“Instead, the District is committed to providing equal employment opportunities for all individuals. The District serves a diverse community, and views diversity as one of the community's greatest strengths.”

Sams, Harvey High’s former girls’ varsity basketball head coach, said it was “so blatant that they discriminated against [Peterson].”

“His rapport with the students and the staff at the school was amazing,” Sams said. “Everything pointed to the fact that they just did not want him as the coach.”

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Chamar Peterson with his sons at Cain Park. Relocating from Painesville was very hard on his children, Peterson said. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]

Peterson and his family have relocated, but miss Painesville, Peterson said, with the move especially tough for his children. The lawsuit, he said, is in part to show his children that they have to stand up for themselves.

“I never want them to be silenced,” Peterson said. “I never want them not to to speak up for what they feel is right and to and to push no matter how difficult it may be.” 

Peterson is working for a new school district and has been asked to coach there. Peterson said he's looking forward to coaching again, but is not quite ready yet.

Peterson's lawsuit against the Painesville School District is entering the discovery phase and will likely go to trial next year.

 

Corrections: This story originally stated candidates for the Harvey High School coaching job interviewed only with the athletic director but Chamar Peterson’s interview process included a hiring panel. It has been corrected to reflect that in years past, coaching candidates interviewed with the athletic director but when Peterson applied for the job, his interview process included a hiring panel and input from parents. It is unclear if other candidates interviewed with the hiring panel.

This story also originally identified John Sams, retired Harvey High School girls’ varsity basketball head coach, as John Sam.

This story also originally stated the Harvey School varsity girls’ basketball team won a 2015 state championship tournament. The team was the 2015 Chagrin Valley Conference champion.

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