Former Escambia High School football coach sues superintendent for racial discrimination

By Mary Ann Magnell | Sep 1, 2018

PENSACOLA — The former head football coach at Escambia High School has filed a lawsuit against Escambia Schools Superintendent Malcolm Thomas alleging racial discrimination and harassment.

Willie Spears filed the lawsuit on Aug. 23, in the Northern District of Florida Pensacola Division, against defendant Malcolm Thomas, the Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County District of Schools. The 44-page lawsuit was filed by Tallahassee attorney Marie A. Mattox. 

In the filing, Mr. Spears alleged “mistreatment” by Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, District Investigator Gary Marsh, Deputy Superintendent Keith Leonard, Deputy Superintendent Alan Scott, County Athletic Director Roxanne Baker, Escambia High School Athletic Director Roger Mayo and Principal Michael Sherrill. 

Willie Spears served as the high school’s physical education teacher and head football coach from March 2012 until his termination in September of 2014, according to the lawsuit.

The former 2013 Escambia High School Teacher of the Year alleged that upon his hiring, Escambia High School principal Michael Sherrill had warned Spears that “some individuals would become upset once they learned of his having hired a black coach.”  

The lawsuit also alleged that Sherrill participated in racially motivated actions “by making inappropriate comments and racially derogatory remarks directly to Plaintiff regarding his race,” as well the coaches, stating that the sidelines were “really dark,” which referred to the coaches’ race, and commenting on their “gold teeth.” 

According to the plaintiff, he was “subjected to disparate treatment, different terms and conditions of employment, and was held to a different standard based at least in part on his race (black) and was retaliated against after reporting the disparate treatment and a hostile work environment.” 

Although he made efforts to “rejuvenate the comradery, increase booster member participation, and increase attendance during football games,” these efforts allegedly “enraged several other coaches within the county.”

Additionally, recruiting allegations against Mr. Spears subsequently followed and an investigation into coaching practices and player eligibility continued. 

Spears alleged a contentious work environment until Sherrill, according to the filing, “made a recommendation to Superintendent Thomas, with Thomas recommending that Plaintiff’s termination based on gross insubordination, effective September 17, 2014,” despite the support of his students and players. 

The recommendation came after Mr. Spears used several football players in the team’s opening game, although there were questions about their eligibility. According to the Pensacola News Journal, the Education Practices Commission of Florida launched an investigation in to the firing and in November 2017, it suspended Spear’s teaching license, “fined him $6,600 and mandated a three-year probation and excluded coaching from his scope of work within the state.”

After his termination, Spears continued to allege that Principal Sherrill and Superintendent Thomas continued to damage his reputation and launch “professional attacks against Plaintiff’s character and his professional teaching career,” particularly after Mr. Spears that he announced that he was running for Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County. 

Spears further alleged that the defendant maliciously interfered with other prospective business relationships, causing embarrassment, a damaged reputation and emotional distress.

According to the document, Sherrill and Thomas forwarded information the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), after which it filed an administrative complaint. Additionally, after Mr. Spears became employed at Montgomery Alabama high school, “they contacted the state in continued attacks against his Alabama professional certificate.” 

The lawsuit has brought five counts against Superintendent Thomas, including racial discrimination, tortious interference brought against Mr. Thomas in both an individual and a professional capacity, as well as First Amendment retaliation for protected political association, also brought against Mr. Thomas in his official capacity and his individual capacity. 

Spears is seeking attorney’s fees, as well as $75,000 for “tangible and intangible damages.”

U.S. District Court Northern District of Florida Pensacola Division, Case 3:18-cv-02042


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