News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

School board protected coaches

The Sisters School Board took little action at their January 16 hearing concerning what actions should be taken against Brittaney and Tom Neibergall, the SHS girls basketball coaches.

According to the Sisters School District’s own report, the Neibergalls caused psychological harm to several student athletes during the 2018-2019 season when the coaches violated the District’s policy against bullying, harassing, and intimidating students.

During the executive session, the School Board was guided by the District’s legal counsel as well as the chairman’s arbitrary rules and procedures that restricted the information the Board members were able to consider. Ultimately, this led to inaction and a missed opportunity to stand up to such abuse and to support student victims of such conduct.

The School Board agreed that the Neibergall coaching style previously involved harassment, intimidation and bullying of several girls in violation of school policy. The Department of Health Services (DHS), as well as mental-health experts, define this type of behavior as abusive.

The School Board agreed that the girls’ testimony, claiming they were abused, was credible and believable and were sorry that it happened.

The School Board agreed that the Neibergalls’ coaching style interfered with the girls’ education and resulted in harm to the girls’ psychological health.

The School Board agreed that the athletic director, Gary Thorson, failed to obtain positive references as was previously reported by the District’s HR director. Mr. Thorson was warned by a highly respected Central Oregon school administrator before the season even started about issues with Tom Neibergall, that he would bring “trouble” to the program. Thorson ignored those warnings and then failed to disclose those warnings to investigators.

The Board recognized that the Neibergall coaching style last season was inappropriate, but agreed to retain them as coaches for another season based on the strength of the administration’s assurance that it had taken corrective action with the Neibergalls and that they had modified their coaching style. However, in the January 16 hearing, Tom Niebergall testified that the administration had not taken any corrective action and that he continues to apply the same approach to coaching as he always has.

The retention of the Niebergalls was based on the false assumption that the administration had taken corrective action and that the Niebergalls had changed their ways. Tom Niebergall told the Board at the hearing that nobody had asked him to change and that he has not changed his ways.

An untold piece of the story includes several student athletes that were significantly affected by the Neibergalls’ coaching behavior, to the point where they could not be around them because of fear and anxiety. This meant that they could not participate in a sport they had been involved with since elementary school.

The administration, through their action in keeping the coaches, left the victims with no other choice but to retreat while the coaches remained. The administration claimed they wanted the players back on the court but at the expense of facing their perpetrators which caused fear and anxiety. The District tried to mitigate this issue by hiring a monitor to keep the coaches in check. The District asked the Houghams to sign a confidentiality provision within a safety plan. Protecting the coaches was more important than the players.

This is a case where the School District did not do the right thing by terminating the coaches. Now they’re having to navigate a potential legal mess that could have been eliminated from the beginning by protecting the kids instead of coaches.


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