Former athletic trainer files suit against Windham Southeast school district

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BRATTLEBORO — A former athletic trainer at Brattleboro Union High School claims a toxic workplace where her concerns were largely ignored led her to resign.

Jaclyn Penson of West Chesterfield, N.H., brought a lawsuit against the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, alleging that coaches interfered with her work as athletic trainer, sometimes prevented her from implementing safety protocols and procedures, undermined her efforts to protect student athletes from injuries, were "critical of and disrespectful" of her attempts to implement safety measures and campaigned against her.

Filed March 3 in United States District Court for the District of Vermont by attorney Norman E. Watts of Watts Law Firm in Woodstock, the suit alleges wrongful termination in violation of the state's public policy mandating protection of student athletes participating in school athletic programs. It was filed in federal court because the two parties are based in two different states but the defendant is in Vermont and awards being sought exceed $75,000.

Penson is seeking a jury trial, judgment and an award from the supervisory union for lost compensation and benefits, damages, attorney's fees and court costs. As of Thursday, the supervisory union had not yet responded in court filings.

Court records show the summons was delivered to the supervisory union Tuesday. Superintendent Lyle Holiday said she was unaware of the lawsuit and the office was closed since Monday. School

Principal Steve Perrin also said he was unaware of the suit.

Watts wrote that the supervisory union employed Penson as an athletic trainer for three-and-a-half school years starting in 2016, making her a designated "allied health care provider" licensed under Vermont law. Her duties included "promoting and implementing an effective athletic training program; providing first aid, injury evaluation diagnosis and assessments, treatment, rehabilitation, and reconditioning for student athletes; and protecting student athletes from serious injuries," the suit states, adding that she was required to provide medical coverage for student athletes at home games and practices from the beginning of the fall sports season to the end of the spring season, and to attend additional events that the athletic director may assign.

The lawsuit alleges that varsity boys hockey coach Eric Libardoni "actively discouraged students from consulting" with Penson for examinations or treatments for potential injuries.

"Libardoni intimidated students and they became intimidated and leery of consulting with plaintiff about an injury or potential injury," the suit states. "Coach Libardoni's practice was disconcerting for plaintiff, especially when students had head injuries or potential head injuries."

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One instance cited in the complaint was a fist fight during a hockey game where Penson said she intervened after no coaches did and determined one of the players suffered a concussion. The suit also alleges Libardoni "verbally assaulted" Penson, "creating a hostile environment that made it difficult to implement concussion protocol and therefore prevent further injury to the athlete."

Similar incidents involving other BUHS and Brattleboro Area Middle School coaches occurred, Watts wrote. He said BUHS Athletic Director Chris Sawyer "physically blocked" Penson access to his team of lacrosse players, forcing her to report the incident to Perrin. The suit alleges Sawyer to be "only minimally responsive to her reports" about Libardoni.

Penson also complained to administrators after discovering Libardoni was providing "smelling salts" to student athletes, the suit states. The salts are described by Watts as a mixture of ammonia, water and alcohol intended to restore or stimulate the senses.

"Administering 'smelling salts' to student athletes violates the safety protocols because it may cause them to exceed their personal limits in athletic endeavors, exercises and activities," Watts wrote. It "may cause students to experience exhilaration in the form of a 'high,' ignore actual injuries and exacerbate head or neck injuries ... [and] may also cause severe irritation to a student's nose and lungs, and in rare instances cases, asphyxiation and death."

School administrators failed to intervene to prevent the use of the salts, Watts wrote.

The suit alleges Libardoni yelled at students frequently, "using disgusting epithets towards them, and threatening them with limited playing time to encourage or force them to raise their athletic performance."

"On at least one occasion," Watts wrote, "Libardoni refused medical examination or treatment for youngster who hit their head on the arena ice; he prevented plaintiff and another employee for defendant, the away-team athletic trainer, from examining or treating the child."

Penson reported his actions to the Vermont Agency of Education and the supervisory union, and parents also complained to school officials, according to the suit. She claimed Libardoni then began discouraging students from sharing potential injuries with her.

The suit alleges school officials criticized Penson for reporting Libardoni to the state and his friends including other coaches criticized her on social media. When Penson "finally realized that school authorities had no intention of curtailing Libardoni's threats and abuse towards students or his intimidation towards her, she resigned," Watts wrote. Conduct within the supervisory union "created an intolerable working situation" for Penson, and "breached the public policy mandating protection for the health and safety of defendant's student athletes .,. [and] public policy by preventing her from carrying out her duties to protect student athletes' health and safety."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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