Ex-Pa. prep wrestling coach files racial discrimination lawsuit against school district

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
JaMarr Billman

Former Easton Area High School wrestling coach JaMarr Billman was subjected to a hostile work environment “rife with racist actions, racist discrimination and retaliation” by administrators and the school board, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Billman says in the lawsuit filed against the school district that he had been discriminated against and harassed on the basis of his race, and that the district had been retaliatory toward him for filing complaints, ultimately terminating him.

Billman, who was told the head wrestling coach’s position was being opened May 29, alleges district officials worked to undermine him and his department, and that they failed to adequately protect him from white parents who made threats against him.

Two years ago, the Easton Area School District spent more than $100,000 on an investigation and changes related to an incident in which Billman was verbally and physically assaulted during the 2018 PIAA Wrestling Championships, by the grandfather of a wrestler who failed to make weight. The incident led to Easton athletic director Jim Pokrivsak informing Billman his contract wouldn’t be renewed, then to Billman’s rehiring in the week after the tournament.

An investigation by an outside firm hired by the district found that race wasn’t a factor in the nonrenewal.

District solicitor John Freund said the facts surrounding this case will again show that “no racial motivations were involved.”

“There’s absolutely no reason why this school district would not want to see Mr. Billman and the program that he ran succeed,” Freund said.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent David Piperato said the decision wasn’t racially motivated, but was based on this year’s evaluation of the program showing problems with rules compliance, management, leadership and other issues. He and Freund said Billman could have reapplied for the position.

Since the 2018 PIAA tournament, Billman filed an unlawful harassment complaint with human resources, which substantiated a claim against Pokrivsak for allegedly mocking Billman and tarnishing his reputation, according to the complaint. In August 2019, he filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the state Human Relations Commission. The EEOC issued him a notice of rights to sue in March 2020.

“I thought in 2018 that Easton could not discriminate against me, as I was an alumni and former student-athlete,” Billman told The Morning Call earlier this week. “In 2020, I truly believe that I was discriminated [against] due to the color of my skin.”

The complaint alleges Pokrivsak “proudly identified himself as racist, and made a mockery of it.” It also alleges assistant football coach Joe McIntyre, who is white and the parent of a wrestler, cornered him and told Billman he had no respect for him. When Billman raised concerns with district administrators, they did not investigate his reports, according to the complaint.

Pokrivsak declined to comment and referred questions to Freund.

“I certainly don’t get any impression [Pokrivsak] is in any way bigoted or racist,” Freund said.

Billman emailed human resources in September 2018, expressing concerns that the district was actively working to undermine him in an effort to discredit him and sabotage the program.

In the federal complaint, Billman alleges that the district under-funded the wrestling program compared to other athletic programs run by white coaches, and that Billman was not paid on the same basis as his white counterparts. His budget was limited to $300 over two years, while coaches of other sports received whatever budget they requested, according to the complaint.

Billman also alleges the district didn’t provide adequate protection after white parents complained about and threatened him. The district hired a plain clothes officer to accompany Billman to a wrestling match in March 2019. At the match, Assistant Superintendent Alyssa Emili sat with the parent who threatened him, away from the rest of the Easton parents and team. Billman complained about Emili’s conduct. The district failed to provide protections at subsequent matches and knowingly allowed white parents who physically threatened him to attend, according to the complaint.

He alleges that the district required administrators to alter his performance review as a basis to terminate his employment. Last year, the district assigned Elaine Arnts, an assistant athletic director, as his supervisor in an alleged effort to address his concerns about Pokrivsak, according to the complaint. She gave a favorable report of Billman’s performance in April, but then days later was told in a meeting with Pokrivsak and Emili that her observations were totally inaccurate, according to the complaint. At that point, neither administrators had attended a wrestling practice since September 2019.

Arnts was told to retract her observations, and went to school board President George Chando to report that she felt frightened, threatened and feared losing her job. He didn’t allay her concerns, according to the complaint. Chando deferred comments to Freund. Arnts amended her notes, and Billman’s May 2020 evaluation dropped 30 points from the previous year.

The 2018 incident led to Billman’s firing then rehiring in the week after the tournament. In the intervening days, Emili attended a “Fire Billman Party” with the man who attacked Billman and his family, according to Billman’s complaint.

Emili didn’t return requests for comment. Freund said he “seriously doubts that has any truth in it."

Billman is asking for back pay, front pay, punitive damages, compensatory damages, attorneys fees and other relief.