News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

District to tighten policies on coaching

Those were the outcomes of a five-hour hearing before the Sisters School Board on Thursday, January 16, addressing an investigation into concerns of several Sisters parents regarding coaching in the Sisters High School girls basketball program. The investigation was conducted in response to a supplemental tort claim notice filed by those parents. Such a notice is not a lawsuit, but it establishes the foundation for potential legal action.

The notice alleged emotional abuse of student athletes by the coaches. The claim also alleged that Athletic Director Gary Thorson lied about reference checks on Tom Niebergall and acted inappropriately to protect the coaches.

This was the third investigation into the matter. The first was conducted last school year by Thorson; another was conducted in June 2019 by High Desert Education Service District Human Resources Director Jayel Hayden, and the most recent was conducted by an outside investigator, attorney Danielle Lordi.

The school board noted that, while they do not accept the characterization of the coaches’ conduct as “abuse,” the District accepts the finding of the Hayden investigation that the coaches violated the Sisters School District’s policy prohibiting “harassment, intimidation or bullying.”

School board chairman Jay Wilkins stated several times that the board accepts the affected girls’ perceptions “at face value.” In a later interview, he told The Nugget that the board wants to inculcate a culture of openness around such issues.

“We don’t force the kids to prove it; we don’t cast doubt on their claim,” he said. “We should embrace that.”

Wilkins also praised the mandatory reporter (a teacher) who initially reported the matter to the Department of Human Services and asserted “complete endorsement of the mandatory reporting policy.”

In the wake of the hearing, which was held in closed executive session, the board voted unanimously in open session to uphold the findings of Superintendent Curt Scholl on each of seven allegations put forward in the supplemental tort claim notice.

Scholl acknowledged that, “Mr. Thorson supports the Niebergalls’ coaching style and disagrees with Mr. Hayden’s conclusion that they violated District policy.” However, he concluded based on the Lordi investigation that Thorson did not act improperly to protect the coaches from allegations. He also concluded that Thorson had not lied about reference checks on Assistant Coach Tom Niebergall, who is Head Coach Brittany

Niebergall’s father.

Thorson had had conversations with two men from Bend High School, but “he did not consider his conversations… to be formal reference checks,” Scholl stated. Those conversations occurred after Tom Niebergall was already acting in the capacity of assistant coach.

One of those with whom Thorson spoke “said some positive things about Tom Niebergall to Mr. Thorson, although his overall comments were negative.” The negative tenor of those comments was not made evident and Scholl noted that, “Mr. Thorson should perhaps have been more forthcoming to Mr. Hayden about the negative comments he received … about Mr. Niebergall…”

While Brittany Niebergall was thoroughly vetted because she was also hired as a classroom teacher, no formal, documented reference checks are in the record regarding Tom Niebergall. Nor were there reference checks on assistant coach and player parent Joey Hougham, who resigned and is one of the parents who filed the complaint.

In upholding Scholl’s conclusions, the school board directed the superintendent to ensure that the District establish clear policies and protocols around hiring procedures for all coaches, including reference checks.

Wilkins told The Nugget, “Our sense is that there’s really a need that everyone understands it; that it’s followed precisely; that it is documented.”

Wilkins said that he doesn’t think that unclear and possibly lax procedures caused the problems around the girls basketball program or that the outcome would have been different if stricter procedures had been in place. However, he noted, the District is already in the process of tightening and standardizing its protocols for anyone who works with students, including volunteers — and clear, stringently adhered-to hiring procedures should be part of that process.

Based on the Lordi investigation, Scholl found “mostly without merit” the allegation that “the Niebergalls’ abusive conduct continued even after Joey Hougham resigned and the Hougham girls were forced to withdraw from extracurricular activities.”

At issue were alleged incidences of “shout(ing) at games and practices,” and Tom Niebergall slamming a locker room door in “rage” or frustration and expressing frustration or disgust in the locker room. The investigator did not find that Brittany Niebergall had told a player, as is alleged, that she was “entirely to blame for a loss,” but she did “find credible the statement of… a supporter of Ms. Niebergall that Ms. Niebergall told (the player) if she hadn’t made certain mistakes, the team would have won.”

In his conclusions, Scholl stated, “I do not find that the Niebergalls’ conduct during the 2018/19 basketball season was abusive, either before or after Mr. Hougham resigned and the Hougham girls left the team. I find that the Niebergalls’ coaching style was perceived very differently by different girls and that the perception of your families (those who filed the tort claim notice) are equally as valid as the perceptions of the families who enthusiastically approve of the Niebergalls’ style.”

Scholl stated that he has never concluded “that the Niebergalls engaged in abusive conduct or that they intended to intimidate or harass any player… (emphasis in original)… The entire team and many parents witnessed the same conduct by the coaches, yet there is a dramatic difference in perception among the girls as to whether that conduct was appropriate or not. This underscores that there is a valid difference of opinion as to the point at which ‘passionate,’ ‘old school’ or ‘tough’ coaching crosses the line into inappropriate behavior.”

The school board upheld Scholl’s conclusion — but members added a caveat requiring Scholl to return to the board at the March meeting with a proposal for a policy, procedure or practice that will clarify standards and provide a pathway to identifying when players and coaches have a problem and how to address it.

“Even one person feeling intimidated, harassed or bullied is not OK,” Wilkins told The Nugget. “ And if anyone feels that way, it needs to be addressed.”

Wilkins and Scholl both acknowledged the difficulty of crafting a policy that can address how people feel. Both also said that it is important to establish a standard and encourage communication. That communication has to move in multiple directions, Wilkins acknowledged. Coaches need to know if there is a problem, and then be responsive in addressing it.

Having experience as a coach himself, Wilkins said, “I would want to know. I would want to make changes to be more effective as a coach.”

The Sisters School District has recently established training in “positive coaching” (See related story page 27).

Scholl told The Nugget that the District’s recent process to establish mission and vision includes the imperative that all students feel that they “belong.”

“It’s a focal point for the District going forward,” Scholl said. “It’s a paramount part of the discussion.”

At press time, the attorney representing the Houghams had not returned a call and email query from The Nugget seeking a response to the actions of the board.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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