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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

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Former swim coach sues SBU for discrimination

A legal gavel and open book. Former Stony Brook University Swimming and Diving Head Coach Janelle Atkinson is suing Stony Brook University for gender and race discrimination. BLOGTREPRENEUR/FLICKR VIA CC BY 2.0

Former Stony Brook University Swimming and Diving Head Coach Janelle Atkinson is suing Stony Brook University for gender and race discrimination.

In a lawsuit filed on Nov. 19, Atkinson claims she did not receive the “same institutional support as male coaches of men’s teams,” and that she was “micromanaged” in a way that “male and/or white coaches and coaches of men’s teams are not.”

Atkinson — an Olympic swimmer from Jamaica who also coached swim teams at Fairfield University and the University of Connecticut — was allegedly fired from Stony Brook last year shortly after she was publicly accused of mentally abusing swimmers on the team.

Atkinson’s position at Stony Brook was terminated in January 2018, less than a year after she was hired. The number of swimmers on the team dropped from 13 that fall semester to six by the time she left.

Former swim captain and alumna, Tess Stepakoff, published an op-ed in The Statesman last year detailing what she describes as mental abuse at the hands of Atkinson.

“We were told that we were weak, that we were not enough and we were not trying,” wrote Stepakoff, who was a Managing Editor for The Statesman at the time. “We were cursed at and screamed at during every practice for months. As our physical and mental health declined, we were told to get over it. If we had to miss practice for injuries or illnesses, our spots on the team were threatened.”

Another former swimmer on Atkinson’s team, Arianna Rodriguez, spoke out in an article on the popular swimming site She claimed that illnesses and physical injuries were ignored, and that Atkinson regularly told team members that they were not good enough and threatened to take away their scholarships and spots on the team.

Stepakoff declined to comment and Rodriguez could not immediately be reached for comment.

Atkinson’s lawsuit denies all allegations of abuse made against her.

Atkinson recruited 13 women for the team by September 2017, just five months after she was hired. The lawsuit notes that coaches typically have a year to build a team when they’re starting a program from scratch.

According to the suit, several women quit for reasons that were beyond Atkinson’s control. Despite these setbacks, the suit claims that Stony Brook’s Athletic Director assured Atkinson that this would not impact her employment at the university.

“Throughout her tenure at SBU [Stony Brook University], Coach Atkinson was repeatedly told by Athletic Director Shawn Heilbron that SBU understood Coach Atkinson would need time to build the program; that most of the current roster of swimmers were not of the caliber necessary to make the program competitive; and that Coach Atkinson would not be held to high-performance standards for at least the first 3-5 years while she built the program from scratch,” the suit reads.

After Atkinson expressed her frustrations with the team’s performance to Heilbron and Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance, Stephen Clacherty, they allegedly told her that she “had done all she could do, and that she just needed to get through the year until she recruits higher-level swimmers.”

The suit goes on to claim that Heilbron denied Atkinson’s request to meet with the team to demonstrate his support for her and show her swimmers that she was not the only person who expected them to “attend practices, communicate, push themselves to perform at their highest level, etc.”

The suit also outlines the difficulties Atkinson faced in dealing with one swimmer who is referred to as student A. After consistently underperforming through the season Student A abruptly quit the team in January, according to the suit.

“The next day, Student A sent an email to AD [Athletic Director] Heilbron, AAD [Assistant Athletic Director] Clacherty, SBU President Samuel Stanley, the coaching staff, and others accusing Coach Atkinson of abusive behavior, ignoring or downplaying the mental health concerns of student-athletes, and ignoring or downplaying student-athlete injuries,” the lawsuit states.

Soon after, Heilbron allegedly told Atkinson that they would be launching an investigation and asked her to compile documentation for President Stanley.

On Jan. 20, 2018, Atkinson learned that another student, referred to as Student B, sent an email to university administration also accusing her of abusive behavior. A volunteer coach also informed her that he had been interviewed by an investigator.

Although, according to the lawsuit, the volunteer coach tried to defend Atkinson in the interview, the investigator asked him to sign a statement that “grossly mischaracterized” their conversation.

Assistant Coach Jordan Bowen’s scheduled interview for January 26, 2018 was abruptly canceled, according to the suit. That day, Heilbron informed Atkinson that her employment had been terminated, even though neither Atkinson nor Bowen had been interviewed, the suit read.

Atkinson claims in her lawsuit that all the allegations against her were false and that the university’s investigation was flawed.

“The allegations were the result of gender stereotypes affecting female coaches, and especially female coaches of color,” the lawsuit read. “In particular, the allegations accused Coach Atkinson of abusive behavior even though Coach Atkinson’s behavior was always well within acceptable and standard coaching behavior.”

University Media Relations officer Lauren Sheprow declined to comment.

“Stony Brook University has not seen any legal papers related to this matter and therefore is unable to comment on the referenced lawsuit,” she wrote in an email.

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